On appeal from the Final Administrative Decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.
Karen Goode, as the administratrix of the estate of Brian Goode, a former police officer, appeals a final administrative decision of the Board of Trustees ("Board") of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System ("PFRS") denying her certain pension benefits. For the reasons noted in this opinion, we are constrained under the applicable law to affirm the Board's administrative decision.
The record presents the following pertinent chronology of events. Brian Goode was hired as a police officer by the Borough of Keansburg ("the Borough") in August 1987. At the time, he was married to his first wife, Tamara. Brian enrolled in the PFRS and designated Tamara as his primary beneficiary for all death benefits. Brian and Tamara divorced in 1991, but he did not change the PFRS beneficiary designation.
In 1992, Brian married appellant Karen Goode. They had three children together. Brian listed Karen as a beneficiary on a $50,000 life insurance policy issued pursuant to Brian's status as a Borough employee. However, for reasons that are unclear, Brian never changed his PFRS designation to substitute Karen for Tamara.
After troubles arose in the second marriage, Karen filed a divorce complaint in September 2003. As part of the pendente lite relief, the Family Part issued an order on February 6, 2004 directing Brian, among other things, to pay Karen unallocated support in the amount of $2500 per month. In addition, the court required Brian to "continue to name [Karen] and the children of the marriage as the beneficiaries of his work related life insurance policy. [Brian] has provided proof of coverage as part of his certification to the court."
Brian did not pursue an interlocutory appeal or otherwise move for relief from that order. Nevertheless, he still did not change the PFRS designation. Karen eventually withdrew her divorce complaint, and instead obtained a bed-and-board divorce, which incorporated by reference the February 24, 2004 pendente lite order.
In 2004, Brian was suspended by the police department without pay after he had provided testimony adverse to the police chief in an investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office. He was then terminated from his position in November 2006. He challenged his suspension and termination as retaliatory, both before the former Merit System Board and in a federal lawsuit.
The retaliation matters settled in July 2007. As part of the negotiated settlement with the Borough, Brian was reinstated in good standing but agreed to voluntarily resign effective November 30, 2007, in contemplation that he would be eligible to obtain a twenty-year service pension as of that date. The Borough agreed in the settlement to pay Brian $120,000 within thirty days as a compromise amount for Brian's claims for attorney's fees and to pay for pension contributions to cover Brian's service through the agreed-upon November 30, 2007 resignation date. The settlement agreement specified that the $120,000 payment was not for back pay.
The settlement agreement required the Borough to notify the Division of Pensions and Benefits ("the Division") that Brian had been reinstated and he was in good standing as a Borough police officer. The agreement also stated that Brian was to submit his letter of resignation immediately after the date on which he completed twenty years of service, which the parties believed to be August 29, 2007.*fn1 The parties further agreed that Brian was to be considered on a leave of absence, without pay, but with continued health benefits, between the date of the agreement and his resignation.
Five days after the settlement agreement was placed on the record, Brian died on August 1, 2007 of natural causes. Nevertheless, the Borough Council and Mayor formally approved the settlement by resolution dated August 8, 2007. In simultaneous letters dated August 9, 2007, the Division informed both Tamara and Karen that their respective claims on Brian's benefits were delayed by a request from the Division to the Borough for "information."
Prior to settlement negotiations, the Merit System Board complaint had been transferred to the Office of Administrative Law ("OAL") as a contested case. On September 5, 2007, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") approved the ...