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Tasca v. Board of Trustees

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

January 28, 2019

REGINA TASCA, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Respondent-Respondent.

          Argued November 26, 2018

          On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, PFRS No. 3-91517.

          Catherine M. Elston argued the cause for appellant (C. Elston & Associates, LLC, attorneys; Catherine M. Elston, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Danielle P. Schimmel, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Jeff S. Ignatowitz, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Sumners and Mitterhoff.

          OPINION

          SUMNERS, J.A.D.

         Petitioner Regina Tasca appeals the final agency decision of the Board of Trustees (Board), Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), denying her twenty-year service (early) retirement pension benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-5(3), because she was not a PFRS member at the time of the statute's January 18, 2000 effective date. Tasca claimed that her transfer of six years of service credit, which she earned prior to her PFRS enrollment in February 2001, to her PFRS account resulted in service credit that exceeded the twenty-year threshold needed for early retirement. Alternatively, she argues that, even if she was not a PFRS member on the statute's effective date, she was entitled to early retirement pension benefits through the doctrine of equitable estoppel because she retired based on representations by the PFRS staff that her purchased service credit qualified her for the benefits. Tasca also claims that her early retirement was part of her settlement with her former employer in a Law Division action, and because public policy favors settlement of litigation, she should receive the early retirement pension benefits that she and her former employer believed in good faith she was eligible to receive.

         We disagree with appellant, and affirm because the Board properly interpreted N.J.S.A. 43:16A-5(3) in determining that since she was not a PFRS member at the critical time of the statute's effective date, she was ineligible for early retirement despite her transferred service credit. We also conclude that equitable estoppel does not afford Tasca relief against a governmental body, such as the Board, and there was no misrepresentation by the PFRS staff that she was eligible for retirement under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-5(3). We further conclude that public policy favoring settlements against parties who have entered into them serves no basis for granting her early retirement benefits in this matter.

         I

         Tasca was employed as a special police officer with the Borough of Fairview from January 1, 1995, until she resigned on January 24, 2001. During that period, she was enrolled in the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Upon joining the Bogota Police Department as a patrol officer on February 1, 2001, she transferred her service credit from PERS to PFRS, a different pension program. She thus received a certification of payroll deductions from PFRS, listing a January 1, 1995 "date of enrollment," encompassing eighty-one months of prior service.

         Starting in May 2011, a little over ten years after joining the Bogota police force, Tasca became embroiled in a series of disciplinary actions. This eventually led to her termination in September 2012, which was effective October 18, 2012. Approximately five months before her termination, she filed a federal lawsuit in April 2012, against Bogota and members of its police department, alleging violations of her rights under the Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14, and the First Amendment. After her termination, she amended the complaint to add Bogota's mayor and some of its council members as defendants.

         Adding to the parties' litigation, Bogota filed a complaint in the Law Division in December 2012, seeking a refund of the salary Tasca received while she was under suspension. Tasca, in turn, dismissed her federal action and incorporated the claims asserted therein as counterclaims[1] in the Law Division matter.[2]

         After the completion of discovery, Tasca was granted partial summary judgment in May 2015, invalidating both her suspension from May 18, 2011, to May 28, 2015, and her termination in October 2012, on the basis that the disciplinary actions "were the product of multiple conflict[s] of interest[]." Tasca was awarded back pay and immediate reinstatement to employment, although not on active duty.

         In November 2015, the entire litigation was settled. All claims and pending disciplinary actions were dismissed, with Tasca receiving $2.25 million from Bogota.[3] Pertinent to this matter, it was agreed by the parties to the settlement that Tasca "shall remain a police officer and employee of Bogota on its payroll, and shall maintain all seniority and benefits, until the effective date of her retirement," in good standing, to take effect on December 31, 2015. In furtherance of her retirement, Bogota was required to

take whatever steps are necessary and/or required to effectuate Officer Tasca's PFRS pension with all reasonable diligence, including but not limited to supporting Officer Tasca's application for a pension on a service retirement, submitting any and all information or documents required by PFRS, and fulfilling any other requirements of or requests from PFRS.

         Before agreeing to the settlement, Tasca confirmed online that she had at least twenty years' service time in PFRS, which led her to believe she was eligible for early retirement pension benefits. She also claimed that she met with a PFRS counselor, who advised she was eligible for early retirement pension benefits and could file an application online.

         A problem, however, arose prior to finalizing the settlement. When she was unable to apply for early retirement pension benefits online, Tasca contacted PFRS on December 14, 2015. She claimed that a PFRS counselor indicated she should be able to apply for benefits because she had the necessary twenty years' service in PFRS. However, after checking with a supervisor, the counselor advised her - which is confirmed in a PFRS contact log - that she was ineligible for early retirement pension benefits because she was not a PFRS member on January 18, 2000. The service time added to her account from her Fairview employment was transferred in 2001, and would not qualify her for early retirement. She was further advised that she could not receive pension benefits until she reached fifty-five years of age.[4] See N.J.S.A. 43:16A-5(1). Tasca then refused to sign the settlement agreement.

         In response to Tasca's desire to back out of the settlement, the trial court granted Bogota's request for a hearing to determine if the settlement agreement was enforceable. Following argument, the court issued an order on December 23, 2015, finding the parties reached a binding agreement, thereby rejecting Tasca's claim that the settlement was void because of the parties' "mutual mistake" that she was eligible for early retirement pension benefits. Six days later, Tasca signed the ...


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