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Brown v. State

December 17, 2002

ROBERT BROWN, DAVID TOMA, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHER SIMILARLY SITUATED PFRS ACCIDENTAL DISABILITY RETIREES THAT WERE RETIRED BEFORE APRIL 1, 1991, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, DIVISION OF PENSIONS & BENEFITS, POLICE & FIREMENS RETIREMENT SYSTEM, DIVISION OF TAXATION, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, L- 201-00.

Before Judges Skillman, Cuff and Winkelstein.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Winkelstein, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 19, 2002

Plaintiffs are retired police officers who have taken accidental disability retirement and receive a pension funded by the Police & Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS). *fn1 Plaintiffs filed a seven count complaint challenging an amendment to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7, a provision of the laws concerning the Police & Firemen's Retirement System, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 to -16.16, which enhanced retirement benefits for certain PFRS members who retired on or after April 1, 1991. L. 1998, c. 281. Plaintiffs claim that those members of PFRS who retired on accidental disability from July 1, 1944, through March 31, 1991, were wrongly omitted by the Legislature from coverage under the statute.

In counts two through four, plaintiffs claimed the amendment is unconstitutional under the New Jersey and United States Constitutions *fn2 ; is special legislation; and violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C.A. § 12131 to 12132. The fifth, sixth and seventh counts of the complaint alleged violations of New Jersey tax laws related to income tax, sales and use tax and residential property taxes. The court severed these counts and referred them to the Tax Court which dismissed them on summary judgment. That decision is not on appeal. Rather, plaintiffs challenge the court's decision granting summary judgment as to counts one through four of plaintiffs' complaint. In dismissing the complaint, the motion judge concluded that "the criteria under the rational basis test has been met." Plaintiffs appeal the dismissal and we affirm.

I.

PFRS provides an accidental disability retirement benefit for former police and fire employees. N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. Subject to certain conditions, the benefit is available to those police officers and firefighters who are "permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1).

Prior to January 6, 1998, the benefit for all qualifying retirees was calculated based on the member's compensation "for which contributions were being made at the time of the occurrence of the accident." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(2)(b) (1991). Under the amended statute, benefits are calculated either based on the compensation "for which contributions were being made at the time of the occurrence of the accident or at the time of the member's retirement, whichever provides the largest possible benefit to the member." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(2)(b) (1998).

Plaintiffs' claim the Legislature passed the amendment in response to events which took place in Essex County in 1991, when four to five hundred county employees, including ninety-one police officers, were laid-off for budgetary reasons. A group of officers took voluntary accidental disability retirement rather than face the lay-offs; their dates of retirement began April 1, 1991, and ended September 1, 1993.

In May 1996, State legislators from the Essex County Legislative District introduced the amendment to change the calculation of accidental disability retirement benefits. The legislation made the amendment retroactive to apply to all those persons retiring on or after April 1, 1991. Identical bills were submitted in both the Senate and the Assembly. See S. 1140, 1997 Leg. (N.J. 1998), Gen. Assemb. 2709, 1997 Leg. (N.J. 1998).

According to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, the number of individuals who would be affected by this legislation was "small." Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Statement to Senate Bill No. 1140, (January 27, 1997). Based upon actuarial valuations of the retirement system of the 2,126 members of the PFRS who had retired on disability benefits, the average number who retired annually between 1991 and 1994 was 81. Legislative Fiscal Estimate to Senate Bill No. 1140, (November 21, 1996). Of those 81, approximately 30.3 per cent - 25 members annually - retired on accidental disability benefits. Ibid. *fn3 The State certified, and it has not been disputed, that of all the disability retirees who retired prior to April 1, 1991, 793 retired on accidental disability benefits.

The governor signed Senate Bill 1140 into law, P.L. 1997, c. 281, effective January 6, 1998. The new method of calculation is available to any member who retired on accidental disability ...


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