On appeal from the Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retirement System, PERS No. 951496.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
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, ...