May 5, 2011
RUSSELL G. CRAWFORD, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY TRANSIT EMPLOYEE'S RETIREMENT PLAN C/O PLAN ADMINISTRATOR, WAYNE SOLOMON, DEFENDANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-0875-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 28, 2011
Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.
Plaintiff Russell G. Crawford appeals the Law Division's order granting summary judgment to defendant and dismissing his complaint, in which he sought certain retirement benefits based upon his interpretation of a settlement document. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
These are the pertinent facts. Plaintiff, who was born in June 1957, was hired as an investigator by New Jersey Transit Corporation ("NJ Transit") on June 1, 1981. He continued to work for NJ Transit for the next twenty-four years.
On October 1, 2005, plaintiff, who was then age forty-eight, took an unpaid sick leave, allegedly because of stress resulting from a hostile work environment. Plaintiff did not return to work again for NJ Transit.
In November 2005, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division against NJ Transit and three supervisors at the company. He alleged discrimination on the basis of his race, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.
Plaintiff's claims were ultimately resolved, pursuant to a settlement attained on February 2, 2008, and his initial lawsuit was consequently dismissed. Plaintiff entered into the settlement after receiving the advice of his counsel.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement*fn1 , plaintiff was paid $25,000 by NJ Transit as consideration for relinquishing all causes of action that he had or could have brought against NJ Transit or its agents. His employment with NJ Transit was deemed terminated, effective February 2008.*fn2 In entering into the settlement, NJ Transit and its agents continued to deny any liability to plaintiff, including his accusations of discrimination.
Plaintiff signed a notarized release, witnessed by his attorney, in connection with the settlement. The release is three pages long and is dated February 2, 2008. Within paragraph two of that release, plaintiff agreed to the following terms relevant to the present appeal:
This releases all claims resulting from anything which has happened up to now, including but not limited to, all claims which were or could have been brought in the action entitled Russell G. Crawford v. New Jersey Transit Corp., [et al.], in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County, Docket No. ESX-L-9333-05.
This Release includes all claims made or which could have been brought as grievances under any collective bargaining agreement, and/or all claims made or which could have been brought in any other administrative or judicial proceeding. This Release includes all claims involving any continuing effects of actions or practices which arose prior to the date of this Release and I release the use in any way of any past action or practice in any subsequent claim. Provided however, this Release does not affect any vested rights to pension benefits which I might have. This Release is a compromise and in full settlement of all claims that I may have against You. [Emphasis added.]
Additionally, in paragraph three of the release, plaintiff acknowledged that the $25,000 settlement was "in full payment," and that "[i]n further consideration for this settlement, [he] agree[d] that [he would] not seek anything further including any other payment from [defendant]." (Emphasis added).
Thereafter, plaintiff filed the present action in the Law Division against defendant, New Jersey Transit Employee's Retirement Plan c/o Plan Administrator, Wayne Solomon ("the Plan").*fn3 In this second complaint, plaintiff claimed that he is entitled to enhanced pension benefits under the Plan, pursuant to the so-called "Rule of 80." The Rule of 80 allows an employee to retire before his or her normal retirement date and collect full pension benefits, provided that the employee's age plus his or her accumulated years of service total eighty, and the employee had no unpaid breaks from service lasting more than a year.
Plaintiff turned the age of fifty-two in June 2009. He contends that, but for the workplace discrimination of NJ Transit, he would have continued working through June 2009, at which time he would have accumulated twenty-eight years of service in the Plan. Adding those alleged twenty-eight service years to fifty-two years of age, plaintiff argues that he has attained the requisite total of eighty, so as to be eligible now for retirement at a full pension under the Rule of 80.
Defendant acknowledges that plaintiff has certain vested rights in the Plan. However, defendant disputes plaintiff's claim for full retirement benefits under the Rule of 80. It notes that, at the time plaintiff actually ceased working for NJ Transit in October 2005, he was only age forty-eight and had accumulated only twenty-four service years, yielding a total at that time of seventy-two. Moreover, at the time the first lawsuit was settled in February 2008, plaintiff still fell short of attaining eighty combined years, as he was then age fifty-two and only twenty-six full years had passed since his June 1981 date of hire.
Defendant further emphasizes that the language of the release relinquishes "all claims" that plaintiff could have brought against NJ Transit, as of February 2008 and that could arise in the future. It argues that the release precludes an imputation of further service credit after the case was settled. Conversely, plaintiff argues that the passage in paragraph two, stating that the release "does not affect any vested right to pension benefits which [he] might have," should be construed to presume his continued employment through June 2009, thereby according him benefits under the Rule of 80.
Faced with these competing interpretations of the release, the trial court adopted defendant's construction and granted summary judgment dismissing the second complaint. This appeal ensued. Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in concluding that the release bars his claim for benefits under the Rule of 80. He further argues that, at the very least, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he is entitled to full retirement benefits under the Rule of 80.
A motion for summary judgment should be granted where "the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995); see R. 4:46-2(c). On appeal, we apply that same and well-established standard de novo. Estate of Hanges v. Met. Prop & Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 374 (2010).
Having considered the parties' arguments and the record as a whole in light of these criteria, we affirm the trial court's order granting summary judgment to defendant, substantially for the reasons cogently expressed in Judge Michael R. Casale's letter opinion dated May 18, 2009. We only add a few comments.
In general, courts favor the enforcement of settlements as a matter of public policy. Brundage v. Estate of Carambio, 195 N.J. 575, 601 (2008). The plain terms of a settlement agreement must be enforced, unless they were procured by fraud or compelling reasons exist to withhold their implementation. Nolan v. Lee Ho, 120 N.J. 465, 472 (1990). A settlement, whether memorialized in the form of an executed agreement or a negotiated release, is a contract. Ibid. Hence, traditional rules of contract law apply in interpreting its terms. Grow Co. v. Chokshi, 403 N.J. Super. 443, 464 (App. Div. 2008). Among those traditional rules is the principle that an unambiguous contract provision should be enforced without looking at parol or extrinsic evidence that preceded the contract's formation. Ross v. Orr, 3 N.J. 277, 281-82 (1949); cf. Conway v. 287 Corp. Ctr. Assocs., 187 N.J. 259, 270 (2006) (consulting parol evidence in a situation where the meaning of the contract was not clear on its face). Likewise, it is hornbook law that "courts do not rewrite contracts in order to provide a better bargain than [the parties] contained in their writing." Grow, supra, 403 N.J. Super. at 464; Christafano v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 361 N.J. Super. 228, 237 (App. Div. 2003).
We agree with the trial judge that the terms of the release in this case were sufficiently clear -- particularly when the release is considered as a whole -- to negate plaintiff's claim that it entitles him to pension benefits under the Rule of 80. Paragraph two of the release only reserved "any vested right to pension benefits which I [plaintiff] might have." (emphasis added). The release did not reserve rights that had not yet vested, or which could have vested in the future if plaintiff had negotiated a subsequent agreement allowing him to return to work. As Judge Casale rightly noted, "vested" is a term that "denotes the quality of a present right or interest." Citing Jersey City v. Kelly, 134 N.J.L. 239, 244 (E. & A. 1946); see Troy Hills Village, Inc. v. Fischler, 122 N.J. Super. 572, 578-79 (Law Div. 1971), aff'd, 122 N.J. Super. 525 (App. Div. 1973). The judge correctly observed that "[a]t this time, [p]laintiff is not seeking a vested pension right as of the date of the release, but pension benefits he would have received if his position was not terminated."
Plaintiff specifically waived in the release his right to litigate whether NJ Transit had discriminated against him, an accusation that NJ Transit flatly denied and continued to deny even after the settlement. The release broadly and explicitly encompassed "all claims involving any continuing effects of actions or practices" by NJ Transit. Plaintiff cannot now resurrect his claims of discrimination by asserting in a second complaint that "but for" discriminatory practices, he would have continued working for NJ Transit and compiled sufficient service time to attain the Rule of 80. Plaintiff also agreed in paragraph three of the release to forbear from seeking "anything further."
For these many reasons, we concur with the judge that "[p]laintiff did not reserve the right to litigate any pension issue," and that plaintiff only retained the pension rights that "were vested at the time of the release." The parol evidence cited by plaintiff, alleging certain oral and written pre-settlement communications with NJ Transit's counsel about his pension, is of no moment because the agreement is sufficiently clear on its face. Even if the court were to consider those communications, they do not alter the meaning of the signed release because the extrinsic documents only refer to "pension and retirement benefits" generically and to plaintiff's 401(k) fund. They do not refer to the Rule of 80 or to any non-vested rights.
Additionally, the extrinsic evidence does not reflect any fraud or other compelling circumstances. Plaintiff was represented by counsel in the negotiation of the settlement of his first lawsuit. If plaintiff had wanted to bargain for the right to have his service time continue to accrue after February 2008, he or his attorney should have insisted that the settlement document be drafted to say so. Or, if NJ Transit refused to agree to such a term, then plaintiff could have continued to litigate his discrimination case. He chose not to do so. There is no justification for the court to, in effect, renegotiate a better bargain for him.
The trial court's order granting summary judgment to defendant is affirmed.