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Cardinale v. Board of Trustees

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

March 1, 2019

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

          Argued February 4, 2019

          On appeal from the Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, PFRS No. 3-98613.

          Steven J. Kossup argued the cause for appellant (Feeley & LaRocca, LLC, and Steven J. Kossup, attorneys; John D. Feeley, of counsel and on the brief).

          Robert E. Kelly, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa Dutton Schaffer, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Robert E. Kelly, on the brief).

          Before Judges Messano, Fasciale and Gooden Brown.

          OPINION

          FASCIALE, J.A.D.

         This appeal requires us to decide whether, as a matter of law, a police officer is ineligible for ordinary disability benefits as a member of the Police & Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) if the officer separates from service by irrevocably resigning from employment to resolve pending drug-related disciplinary charges. We answer this question recognizing that N.J.S.A. 43:16A-8(2) requires disability retirees to return to duty once their disability has "vanished or has materially diminished." Of course, permanently resigning from employment makes returning to duty impossible.

         Isaiah Cardinale (Cardinale) - the officer who resigned from the police department (the Police Department) - argues that the Board of Trustees (the Board) of PFRS acted arbitrarily by refusing to process his application seeking ordinary disability benefits. He maintains that the Board's declaration that he was ineligible misapplies N.J.S.A. 43:16A-8(2), and its refusal to consider his application amounts to a failure to turn square corners. Cardinale urges us to direct the Board to consider his application on the merits.

         We hold that when a PFRS member - here a police officer - voluntarily irrevocably resigns from active service, such a separation from employment automatically renders the individual ineligible for ordinary disability benefits. Generally, for individuals whose disability has vanished or materially diminished, benefits cease when the retiree refuses to return to duty after the Board has so ordered. In this sense, disability retirees are unique. But here, Cardinale can never return to duty solely because of his final resignation, rather than his refusal to do so upon disability rehabilitation. Under the governing legislative framework, the inability to return to duty - due solely to an irrevocable resignation - prevents the Board from statutorily terminating any granted benefits, a result which would contravene important public policy underlying disability retirement benefits.

         We therefore affirm.

         I.

         In August 2004, Cardinale began working as a police officer. On December 16, 2013, he submitted to a random drug test. Two days later, Cardinale admitted to using cocaine. The Police Department immediately suspended him pending the results of the test, and Cardinale successfully completed drug and alcohol treatment in Florida. In February 2014, the toxicology report demonstrated that he had tested positive for cocaine.

         On February 21, 2014, the Police Department issued a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (PNDA). Before that, Cardinale had performed his job without any documented problems. The PNDA charged him with violating the following sections of N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a) and the Police Department's rules and regulations:

N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a):
1. Incompetency, inefficiency or failure to perform duties;
3. Inability to perform duties;
6. Conduct unbecoming a public employee;
7. Neglect of duty; [and] 1[2]. Other sufficient [c]ause.
. . . Department Rules & Regulations:
Oath of Office;
1:5 Code of Ethics;
2:24 Employee Drug Testing;
3:1.1 Standards of Conduct;
3:1.11 Obedience to Laws and ...

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