On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket Number L-2423-01.
Before Judges Petrella, Braithwaite and Lintner.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 9, 2002
Defendant, the Treasurer of the State of New Jersey (State Treasurer), appeals from the motion judge's grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff, Thomas Williamson. The central issue on appeal is whether the judge correctly ruled that public disclosure of financial information as to the proceeds of abandoned or unclaimed life insurance policies and annuity contracts is required under the Right to Know Law and New Jersey's Unclaimed Property Act.
Plaintiff Williamson is a lawyer who operates a business that for a fee researches and locates the missing owners of unclaimed assets held by the State. The Office of the Administrator (see N.J.S.A. 46:30B-6a) of Unclaimed Property (OAUP) in the Department of the Treasury is charged with the responsibility of maintaining records of abandoned property. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-1, et seq. These parties were previously involved in litigation arising out of the OAUP's refusal to confirm the existence or nonexistence of property held for the benefit of missing owners. *fn1 The present appeal by the State Treasurer involves another discrete category of unclaimed funds, those held or owing under life insurance policies and annuity contracts.
The funds owing under such policies and contracts that matured or terminated were deemed by the State as presumed abandoned if unclaimed for more than five years after the funds became due and payable. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-22. *fn2 Such policies mature at the time of death of the insured or at the time that the insured has attained the limiting age under the mortality table on which the policy is based. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-24b.
The State Treasurer has taken possession of funds representing benefits under numerous life insurance policies and annuity contracts that have gone unclaimed for the statutory period. Those funds are held by the State until a lawful claimant applies on prescribed forms for turnover of those funds. Prior to the deposit of those funds into the Unclaimed Personal Property Trust Fund, the State Treasurer, pursuant to the then version of N.J.S.A. 46:30B-76, which had been extant since at least 1989, *fn3 was specifically directed to record the name and last known address of each insured person, annuitant, and beneficiary, the policy number, issuing company, and amount due on each policy or contract. Presumably, such information would need to be recorded even in the absence of this statutory mandate for audit purposes as well as tracking of the various funds held. As noted in Williamson v. Treasurer of the State of New Jersey, 350 N.J. Super. 236, 238, n. 3 (App. Div. 2002), the names and addresses of persons with unclaimed funds being held by the State can be accessed on the Internet *fn4 at http://www.state.nj.us/treasury/Trenton/unclaimsrch.ttn. The problem is, misspellings or changes in address are not so reflected. Where the amounts are significant, persons such as plaintiff have an incentive to research and try to locate the persons or heirs who have a rightful claim to the funds, thus increasing the prospects of finding the rightful owners or claimants.
On July 25, 2001, Williamson provided an OAUP employee with the names and addresses of persons who may be the owners or beneficiaries of unclaimed life insurance policies or annuity contracts and submitted a request that he be informed of the amounts due on certain insurance and annuity contracts. This request was denied. On July 27, 2001, Williamson filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs under the Right to Know Law seeking an order providing him with a specification of the amount due under the requested unclaimed life insurance policies and annuity contracts in the custody of the State Treasurer.
Williamson moved for summary judgment on August 10, 2001, and the State cross-moved to dismiss the complaint. In a November 13, 2001 written opinion, Judge Feinberg determined that the information requested by Williamson was not confidential and was subject to disclosure under the Right to Know Law. Judgment was entered on November 26, 2002, to that effect and Williamson was awarded $500 in attorney's fees and $190 in costs. On December 10, 2001, an amended order decreed that the State Treasurer did not have to calculate and disclose to Williamson the current interest due on any insurance policy or annuity contract in his custody. In addition, the amount that the State Treasurer was ordered to pay to Williamson was reduced to $190, reflecting a denial of attorney's fees, but indicating no reason for that change.
On January 14, 2002, Judge Feinberg denied the State Treasurer's request for a stay of the judgment. The State Treasurer filed an appeal on January 15, 2002, and a stay pending appeal was granted.
The issue presented to us is whether the judge properly determined that the information Williamson requested from the OAUP is subject to public disclosure under the Right to Know Law.
Judge Feinberg applied the statutes in the form that existed at the time the matter was before her and held that New Jersey's version of the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, *fn5 N.J.S.A. 46:30B-1, et seq., and the Right to Know Law, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, et seq., required the OAUP to record the amounts due on unclaimed insurance and annuity contracts and to make this information available for public inspection pursuant to the time and place restrictions in N.J.S.A. 47:1A- 2. We agree with her decision granting summary judgment. See Brill v. Guardian Life Insur. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), and Pinkowski v. Township of Montclair, 299 N.J. Super. 557, ...