May 1, 2012
IN THE MATTER OF A. LYNNE LINDENTHAL FOR PETER W. LINDENTHAL, DECEASED, APPELLANT,
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retirement System, PERS No. 951496.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 16, 2011
Before Judges Waugh and St. John.
A. Lynne Lindenthal*fn1 appeals the January 20, 2010 Final Administrative Determination of the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System (the Board) denying her request to receive a monthly pension benefit upon the death of her husband, Peter W. Lindenthal. We affirm.
In September 2008, the Division of Pensions and Benefits (the Division) received Peter's retirement application requesting a veteran retirement, effective January 1, 2009, under the maximum option. He indicated that he had a spouse residing at his home address and, as a result, the Division sent a letter to Lynne regarding Peter's selection of the maximum option and the option's future effect on her. Lynne claims she never received the letter. Peter did not designate a beneficiary under one of the options that would result in a survivor's benefit for his widow with the concomitant reduced benefit for him. Instead, he selected the maximum benefit option. Peter checked the box selecting the "MAXIMUM OPTION -NO PENSION TO BENEFICIARY - Largest allowance paid to you with no pension benefit paid to a beneficiary upon your death," and signed the signature line adjacent to the selection on the retirement form provided by the Division.
On December 10, 2008, the Board approved Peter's retirement application under the maximum option, with an effective date of January 1, 2009. Peter passed away on January 28, 2009.
N.J.S.A. 43:15A-50 provides that "if a member dies within thirty days after the date of retirement[,] . . . the member's retirement allowance shall not become effective and the member shall be considered an active member at the time of death." However, the statute also provides, in pertinent part: "[I]f the member dies after the date the application for retirement was filed with the system, the retirement will become effective if . . . c. the deceased member had designated a beneficiary under an optional settlement provided by this section . . . ."
N.J.S.A. 43:15A-50. Because his death was within thirty days of his effective retirement date and he selected the "maximum option," the Board treated him as an "active member."
Subsequent to Peter's death, the Division notified Lynne that she was entitled to Peter's group life insurance benefit of $262,292.86. She was further informed that because Peter chose the maximum option, unpaid contributions and interest would be returned to Peter's estate.
Lynne challenged the non-payment of monthly pension benefits to her. She also requested a hearing in the Office of Administrative Law, which was denied by the Board. The Board determined that there were no contested issues of fact and "the issue before the Board is a purely legal question."
Lynne contends that she may have been named as a beneficiary at a prior time, but offers no proof in support of that assertion. She also argues that Peter's selection of the maximum option is invalid, Peter should be considered an active member so that she receives the life insurance payout, and the matter should be remanded to determine the pension benefits due to her. We agree that Peter should be considered an active member, but disagree that Lynne is entitled to benefits under Peter's pension.
Firmly established principles govern our task on appeal. Appellate review of an administrative agency decision is limited. In re Herrmann, 192 N.J. 19, 27 (2007); In re Carter, 191 N.J. 474, 482 (2007). "Where . . . the determination is founded upon sufficient credible evidence seen from the totality of the record and on that record findings have been made and conclusions reached involving agency expertise, the agency decision should be sustained." Gerba v. Bd. of Trs. of the Pub. Emps. Ret. Sys., 83 N.J. 174, 189 (1980). An administrative agency's determination is presumptively correct, and we will not substitute our own judgment of the facts for that of the agency if the agency's findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence and are not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. See Carter, supra, 191 N.J. at 482; Bd. of Educ. of Englewood Cliffs v. Bd. of Educ. of Englewood, 333 N.J. Super. 370, 380 (App. Div.), certif. granted, 166 N.J. 604 (2000); Gerba, supra, 83 N.J. at 189. The burden is on the party opposing the action to demonstrate grounds for reversal. McGowan v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 347 N.J. Super. 544, 563 (App. Div. 2002); Bowden v. Bayside State Prison, 268 N.J. Super. 301, 304 (App. Div. 1993), certif. denied, 135 N.J. 469 (1994).
Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, our scope of review is guided by three major inquiries: (l) whether the agency's decision conforms with relevant law; (2) whether the decision is supported by substantial credible evidence in the record; and (3) whether in applying the law to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a result that was either arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011); Carter, supra, 191 N.J. at 482-83. When an agency decision meets the above criteria, we accord substantial deference to the agency's fact-finding and legal conclusions, being mindful of the agency's "'expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field.'" Circus Liquors, Inc., v. Middletown Twp., 199 N.J. 1, 10 (2009) (quoting Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992)). See also Herrmann, supra, 192 N.J. at 28. Consequently, we will not substitute our own judgment for the agency's even though we might have reached a different result. Stallworth, supra, 208 N.J. at 194; Herrmann, supra, 192 N.J. at 27-28.
Nevertheless, we are obliged to conduct a thorough review of the record and may not merely "rubber-stamp" the agency action. Klusaritz v. Cape May Cnty., 387 N.J. Super. 305, 315 (App. Div. 2006) (citing Gerba, supra, 83 N.J. at 190 (Pashman, J., dissenting)), certif. denied, 191 N.J. 318 (2007). "It is settled that '[a]n administrative agency's interpretation of statutes and regulations within its implementing and enforcing responsibility is ordinarily entitled to our deference.'" Wnuck v. N.J. Div. of Motor Vehicles, 337 N.J. Super. 52, 56 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting In re Appeal by Progressive Cas. Ins. Co., 307 N.J. Super. 93, 102 (App. Div. 1997)). "Although we recognize that deference is generally given to an administrative agency charged with interpretation of the law, we are not bound by the agency's legal opinions." Levine v. N.J. Dep't of Transp., 338 N.J. Super. 28, 32 (App. Div. 2001) (citing G.S. v. Dep't of Human Servs., 157 N.J. 161, 170 (1999)).
Peter's retirement allowance would not become effective and he would be considered an active member unless he had designated a beneficiary under an optional settlement. N.J.S.A. 43:15A-50. In lieu of a survivor option naming Lynne as a beneficiary, Peter selected the maximum option and did not name a beneficiary for the return of contributions and interest in the event of his death.
We held in New Jersey Education Association v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees Retirement System, 327 N.J. Super. 405, 413-14 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 135 (2000), that the statutory scheme governing payments to beneficiaries of members who had applied for retirement but died during the thirty-day period, allowed the beneficiary to elect between the retirement benefit or full life insurance death benefits, but precluded receipt of both.
Here, because Peter did not choose the optioned retirement benefit for his spouse, that elect was not available, and he was properly treated as on active status at the time of his death. We are guided by the principle that:
[A] fundamental obligation in construing a statute is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature and to make sense of the relevant statute. Strasenburgh v. Straubmuller, 146 N.J. 527, 539 (1996). When interpreting a statute, we must first look at the plain words of the statute. Bergen Commercial Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188, 202 (1999). Certainly where the language is clear, courts will enforce the statute as written. Ibid. [Id. at 411.]
The language of N.J.S.A. 43:15A-50 is clear and unambiguous. There is no provision permitting a retroactive change to the retirement option chosen by Peter. Therefore, Lynne is not entitled to a monthly pension allowance.
With respect to the return of the retirement contributions, N.J.S.A. 43:15A-57.1 states in pertinent part: "Any amounts due for which there is no beneficiary at the death of a member, retirant or beneficiary shall be payable to the estate of such member, retirant or beneficiary." The Board determined that, because Peter did not name a beneficiary for the return of contributions and interest upon his death, the balance of that amount should be paid to his estate. We agree with the Board's interpretation of the statute.
Finally, we conclude that the Board's decision conforms with relevant law, is supported by substantial credible evidence in the record, and in applying the law to the facts, the Board did not reach a result that was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.