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Rodbart v. County of Union

December 21, 2009

RICHARD P. RODBART, KENNETH N. SIEGEL, AND LAWRENCE C. WLAZLO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, AND JAMES J. DURKIN, JAMES A. HART, III, PETER A. MCCORD, AND DAVID F. REGAL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF UNION AND GEORGE W. DEVANNEY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-1845-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 18, 2009

Before Judges Stern, Graves, and J.N. Harris.

We consider whether Union County broke a promise with some of its long-time employees involving inducements to retire early on the pledge of "fully paid health benefits for life." Plaintiffs assert a breach of contract when the County refused to reimburse them for Medicare Part B premiums at the time they reached sixty-five years of age. We conclude that there was no failure of performance and therefore affirm the dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint.

The appeal exposes an interpretive rift between a county government and retired government lawyers and law enforcement officers over a contract providing incentives for early retirement. Accordingly, it brings to mind the wise caution that "there is no surer way to misread a document than to read it literally." Guiseppi v. Walling, 144 F.2d 608, 624 (2d Cir. 1944) (concurring opinion), aff'd sub nom. Gemsco, Inc. v. Walling, 324 U.S. 244, 89 L.Ed. 921, 65 S.Ct. 605 (1945). On the other hand, we are equally reminded to ensure that "[i]n dealing with the public, government must 'turn square corners.'" F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418, 426 (1985).

I.

Two of the appellants were employed in the Union County Prosecutor's Office as assistant prosecutors; the other appellant served as a prosecutor's detective, each performing more than twenty-five years of service.*fn1 They retired between 2002 and 2003 in reliance upon an early retirement incentive program offered by the County of Union (County).

In 2000, the Legislature adopted N.J.S.A. 43:8C-2.1, which enabled county governments to offer their employees incentives in order to encourage retirement or voluntary termination of employment. The means of facilitating the purposes of the legislation were through:

a. cash payments or the purchase of annuities;

b. employer contributions to an approved employee deferred compensation program to the extent permitted by federal law;

c. payment by the local unit for continuation of health benefits coverage after retirement for not more than five years or until the employee attains the age of eligibility for Medicare, whichever occurs first;

d. payment by the local unit for health benefits coverage after retirement under the "New Jersey State Health Benefits Program Act," P.L. 1961, c. 49 (C. 52:14-17.25 et seq.), or under group insurance contracts pursuant to N.J.S. 40A:10-23, for employees and dependents in accordance with the law and rules governing the State Health Benefits Program or the law governing such group insurance contracts, as the case may be, for employees who fail to meet the service requirement for payment for such coverage after retirement by no more than five years, but who are otherwise eligible for employer payment for health benefits coverage after retirement; or

e. additional service credit for employees who are members of the Public Employees' Retirement System of New Jersey, pursuant to P.L. 1954, c. 84 (C. 43:15A-1 et seq.) or the Police and Firemen's Retirement System of New Jersey, pursuant to P.L. 1944, c. 255

(C. 43:16A-1 et seq.), or a county pension fund created under P.L. 1943, c. 160 (C. 43:10-18.1 et seq.), or a municipal retirement system created under P.L. 1954,

c. 218 (C. 43:13-22.3 et seq.) or P.L. 1964,

c. 275 (C. 43:13-22.50 et seq.), as provided in section 4 of P.L. 1999, c. 59 (C. ...


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