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Thomas Saccone v. Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System

October 24, 2012

THOMAS SACCONE, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, Department of Treasury.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 24, 2012

Before Judges Sabatino, Fasciale and Maven.

Thomas Saccone (Saccone) appeals from a final decision by the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (the Board) denying his request to designate a supplemental benefits trust*fn1 as a beneficiary for his pension death benefits. We affirm.

Saccone, a retired firefighter, is a member of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS). His wife and disabled adult son (Anthony) are entitled to receive pension death benefits when Saccone dies. Saccone requested that the Division of Pensions and Benefits (the Division) change his pension beneficiary from Anthony, the individual, to "Anthony J. Saccone Supplemental Benefits Trust" to safeguard Anthony's eligibility to receive unspecified public assistance. In support of his request, Saccone's attorney expressed the following:

Due to Anthony's disability and the benefits he receives as a disabled person, he cannot receive any additional assets outright. Therefore, it is necessary for Mr. Saccone to change the beneficiary designation on his pension fund to include the [Anthony Saccone Supplemental Benefits Trust] in place of Anthony Saccone, individually.

Please . . . provide me with the forms necessary to make the above change of beneficiary.

The Division declined the request and Saccone filed an administrative appeal to the Board. The Board initially "decline[d] to provide an advisory opinion since [Saccone] is still living and is currently collecting monthly PFRS benefits." As a result, the Board determined that "the statutes and regulations governing the PFRS do not require the PFRS Board to provide an advisory opinion as requested." We affirmed, Saccone v. Bd. of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement Sys., No. A-1537-09 (App. Div. Nov. 15, 2010), and the New Jersey Supreme Court summarily reversed our opinion and remanded the matter to the Board to decide the case on the merits, Saccone v. Bd. of Trustees, Police & Fireman's Retirement Sys., C-702 (N.J. July 14, 2011) (interim unpublished order).

On remand, the Board denied Saccone's request and, relying on N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1a, explained that a survivor benefit is statutorily created payable only to a qualified survivor. The Board stated that when Saccone dies, he is automatically entitled to payment of pension death benefits to "[his wife] and [Anthony]." The Board relied on the plain language of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1a and stated that Saccone cannot designate a beneficiary for the receipt of accumulated pension contributions. See also N.J.A.C. 17:4-3.5(b).*fn2 This appeal followed.

On appeal, Saccone argues that the Board (1) failed to interpret N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1a as part of a "harmonious plan to benefit its members and their survivors," and as a result, ignored the well-established principle that pension laws constitute remedial social legislation and should be liberally construed; and (2) violated New Jersey's public policy expressed by N.J.S.A. 3B:11-36 favoring the establishment of SNTs.

I.

When reviewing State administrative agency decisions, our role is generally restricted to four inquiries:

(1) whether the agency's decision offends the State or Federal Constitution; (2) whether the agency's action violates express or implied legislative policies; (3) whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency based its action; and (4) whether in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors. [George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk.

Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994).]

On the whole, "[o]ur function is to determine whether the administrative action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable." Burris v. Police Dep't, W. Orange, 338 N.J. Super. 493, 496 (App. Div. 2001) (citing Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 580 (1980)). "The burden of demonstrating that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the [party] challenging the administrative action." In re Arenas, 385 N.J. Super. 440, 443-44 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 219 (2006). Applying these standards of review, we conclude that the Board's decision was not arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious.

"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)). "Absent arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious action, the agency's determination must be affirmed." Ibid. (citing R & R Mktg., L.L.C. v. Brown-Forman Corp., 158 N.J. 170, 175 (1999)). Nonetheless, we are not, of course, bound by the agency's opinions on matters ...


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