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S.L.W. v. New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 24, 2019

S.L.W., Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits, Respondent-Respondent.

          Argued April 24, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          John F. Pilles, Jr., argued the cause for appellant (John F. Pilles, Jr., on the brief).

          Amy Chung, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Juliana C. DeAngelis, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

          TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         When members of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) die after retirement, their children and widowed spouses are eligible to receive survivor benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1. S.L.W., an adult woman with disabilities, sought survivor benefits after her father, a longtime member of the New Jersey law enforcement community, passed in 2012. In this appeal, the Court considers whether, as the Division of Pensions and Benefits (Division) maintains, S.L.W. must prove under N.J.A.C. 17:4-3.7 that she was dependent on her father before his death.

         S.L.W.'s father retired after a long career in law enforcement and began receiving pension retirement benefits from PFRS. S.L.W. followed her father into law enforcement. Tragedy struck in late 2008 when a drunk driver plowed into S.L.W.'s patrol car while she was on duty. Her injuries led to her physical disability and, concurrently, her inability to work. At the time of the accident, S.L.W. was twenty-eight years old, had never married, and lived independently. Going forward, S.L.W. relied on her father for upwards of 90% of her living expenses but indicated on her income taxes that no one could claim her as a dependent.

         S.L.W.'s father died in June 2012. About a year and a half later, S.L.W. attempted to submit an application for survivor benefits under his pension plan. In late June 2014, the Division wrote to S.L.W., indicating that she did not meet the Division's interpretation of the word "child" for PFRS purposes because she had been emancipated and employed prior to her disability. The letter concluded that, even if the Division's interpretation of "child" was incorrect, S.L.W. was still bound to prove dependency under N.J.A.C. 17:4-3.7.

         In July 2014, S.L.W. filed a letter-appeal with the PFRS Board of Trustees (Board) disputing the Division's explanation that she must provide tax returns showing her father had claimed her as a dependent. The Board held a hearing on the matter in early August 2014 and decided S.L.W. did not qualify for survivor benefits. Nevertheless, the Board referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law for an evidentiary hearing.

         After the matter was assigned to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), S.L.W. and the Division cross-moved for summary judgment. The ALJ concluded S.L.W. did not qualify as a "child" under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d), granted the Division's motion for summary judgment, denied S.L.W.'s motion for summary judgment, and dismissed S.L.W.'s appeal. In November 2016, the Board adopted the recommendations of the ALJ.

         S.L.W. appealed the Board's decision. The Appellate Division affirmed in part. The Appellate Division agreed with the ALJ's determination that S.L.W. did not properly establish dependency but found that S.L.W.'s emancipation did not disqualify her as a "child" under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d).

         The Court granted S.L.W.'s petition for certification. 236 N.J. 217 (2018). The Division did not cross-petition to challenge the determination that S.L.W. was not disqualified as a "child."

         HELD: Upon review of the PFRS statute's plain language and history, the Court finds that the Legislature did not intend for children of PFRS members to meet a dependency requirement to receive survivor benefits. The Court's finding is consistent with the PFRS's underlying policy goal of financially protecting the family members of deceased PFRS members.

         1. PFRS not only provides for the financial well-being of retired police and firemen, but also ensures financial stability for their surviving spouses and children by allowing for survivor benefits for certain family members of a retiree in the system. As relevant here, a "child" eligible for survivor benefits is defined in the PFRS pension scheme as a deceased member's or retirant's unmarried child "of any age who, at the time of the member's or retirant's death, is disabled because of an intellectual disability or physical incapacity, is unable to do any substantial, gainful work because of the impairment and [her or] his impairment has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, as affirmed by the medical board." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d). The PFRS statute includes an enabling clause allowing the State Treasurer to "promulgate any rules and regulations necessary to accomplish the purposes of this act." N.J.S.A. 43:16A-16.16. One such enacted regulation provides: "Proof of dependency shall be established by the filing of an affidavit of dependency, supported by the deceased and the claimant's income tax returns, for the period immediately preceding the death or accident." N.J.A.C. 17:4-3.7. (pp. 12-13)

         2. The Court previously considered PFRS survivor benefits in Saccone v. PFRS, 219 N.J. 369 (2014). In Saccone, the Court emphasized the recognized strong public policy favoring the financial protection of a public employee's family, including protecting a public employee's ability to provide adequately for the well-being of his disabled child after his death. Id. at 382. The Court concluded that the survivor benefits statute, like the entire PFRS pension scheme, should be interpreted in light of its remedial character and construed in a manner that furthers its fundamental purpose. Id. at 387. (p. 14)

         3. The literal reading of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d) supports S.L.W.'s argument: the definition of "child" makes no mention of any dependency requirement for survivor benefits. The plain language of the statute, viewed through the lens of the statute's commitment to provide for the financial security of a retirant's surviving children with disabilities, is sufficient to end this inquiry. (pp. 15-16)

         4. Review of the legislative history of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12 and its related definitions underscores the fact that the absence of a dependency requirement was an intentional choice of the Legislature. The PFRS statute's definition of "child" has never included a dependency requirement, unlike its definitions of certain other family members. The Court declines to conclude N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)'s definition of child holds any implied, presumed, or suggested dependency requirement for children who may qualify for survivor benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1. The Division's implementation of its contrary interpretation of the statute through its denial of S.L.W.'s appeal on the basis of her presumed ineligibility was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. (pp. 17-20)

         5. The Court cannot find S.L.W. eligible for survivor benefits as she has not yet had the opportunity to prove she meets all the requirements for those benefits. As such, this matter must be remanded to determine whether S.L.W. is otherwise eligible for survivor benefits. (p. 21)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Board for further proceedings.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE'S opinion.

          OPINION

          TIMPONE JUSTICE

         When members of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) die after retirement, their children and widowed spouses are eligible to receive survivor benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-12.1. S.L.W., an adult woman with disabilities, sought survivor benefits after her father, a longtime member of the New Jersey law enforcement community, passed in 2012. The Division of Pensions and Benefits (Division) maintains S.L.W. is ineligible. It argues that to receive survivor benefits she must prove that she was dependent on her father before his death, citing N.J.A.C. 17:4-3.7.

         The statutory definition of "child" within the PFRS framework, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21), provides:

"Child" shall mean a deceased member's or retirant's unmarried child (a) under the age of 18, or (b) 18 years of age or older and enrolled in a secondary school, or (c) under the age of 24 and enrolled in a degree program in an institution of higher education for at least 12 credit hours in each semester, provided that the member died in active service as a result of an accident met in the actual performance of duty at some definite time and place, and the death was not the result of the member's willful misconduct, or (d) of any age who, at the time of the member's or retirant's death, is disabled because of an intellectual disability or physical incapacity, is unable to do any substantial, gainful work because of the impairment and his impairment has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, as affirmed by the medical board.

Upon review of the PFRS statute's plain language and history, we find that the Legislature did not intend for children of PFRS members to meet a dependency requirement to receive survivor benefits. This finding is consistent with the PFRS's underlying policy goal of financially protecting the family members of deceased PFRS members.

         I.

         A.

         We elicit the facts from the record.

         J.R.W. and C.L.M. married and had two children, including S.L.W. The parents divorced; J.R.W. later remarried. J.R.W. retired on January 1, 2005, after a long career in law enforcement. Shortly thereafter, he began receiving pension retirement benefits from PFRS.

         S.L.W. was twenty-five years old at the time of J.R.W.'s retirement. S.L.W. had followed her father into law enforcement, serving as an officer for the Delaware River Port Authority. What follows are S.L.W.'s representations of the pertinent facts of her case.

         Tragedy struck in late 2008 when a drunk driver plowed into S.L.W.'s patrol car while she was on duty. Her injuries led to her physical disability and, concurrently, her inability to work. At the time of the accident, S.L.W. was ...


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