Christine Minsavage for David Minsavage (deceased), Petitioner-Appellant,
Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, Respondent-Respondent.
September 9, 2019
certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
C. Kelly argued the cause for appellant (McCarter &
English, attorneys; John C. Kelly, of counsel and on the
Chung, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for
respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney;
Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel, and
Christopher Meyer, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
issue in this appeal is whether a widow can modify the
retirement application of her recently deceased husband, who
was a member of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund
(Pension Fund), even though his application was never
approved because he selected a retirement option for which he
was ultimately ineligible.
and Christine Minsavage were married and had four children.
David had served as a math teacher for more than twenty-four
years when he was diagnosed with terminal stage IV pancreatic
cancer in August 2014. In November 2014, following advice
allegedly provided by a New Jersey Education Association
representative, David selected the "early
retirement" option on his retirement application. Early
retirement eligibility requires twenty-five years of teaching
April 9, 2015, David passed away, having accumulated just
over twenty-four years and nine months of teaching service
over the course of his career. Less than two weeks after
David's death, the Division of Pension and Benefits
notified Christine that David's retirement application
would not be approved because he had not completed
twenty-five years of teaching service. As a result, Christine
was entitled only to reimbursement of David's pension
contributions and a group life insurance benefit. Because
David did not live long enough to qualify for early
retirement, his family would have been entitled to greater
benefits had he selected and qualified for "ordinary
disability," rather than "early retirement,"
on his retirement application. Christine sought to modify
David's retirement application to select ordinary
Board of Trustees of the Pension Fund (the Board) denied
Christine's request on the ground that the Pension
Fund's "administrative regulations do not allow for
retroactive disability retirement applications, and become
effective only on or after the date of filing." The
Appellate Division affirmed, noting that Christine's
proofs "fell short of establishing incapacitation"
and that "[t]he plain language of N.J.A.C. 17:3-6.3
indicates it only applies to a retirement application the
Board has already approved."
Neither membership nor prior approval of a retirement
application is required for modification of a retirement
selection where good cause, reasonable grounds, and
reasonable diligence are shown. The Court remands this matter
for further proceedings to allow petitioner Christine
Minsavage the opportunity to argue in favor of modification
under that standard.
Pension statutes should be liberally construed and
administered in favor of the persons intended to be benefited
thereby. For nearly seven decades the Court has maintained
that the power to reopen proceedings may be invoked by
administrative agencies to serve the ends of essential
justice and the policy of the law. That principle applies
equally to the right to amend a retirement application. That
a pensioner is not a member of the Pension Fund when
attempting to modify a retirement application does not on its
own preclude such modification, and beneficiaries have been
allowed to change the retirement application of a deceased
member of the public pension systems. Additionally, the
common law "establishe[s] that the Board may honor a
pensioner's request to reopen her retirement
selection" upon "a showing of good cause,
reasonable grounds, and reasonable diligence" even
"after it is due and payable." Steinmann v.
Dep't of Treasury, 116 N.J. 564, 573 (1989);
Duvin v. Bd. of Trs., PERS, 76 N.J. 203, 207 (1978).
Therefore, notwithstanding N.J.A.C. 17:3-6.3(a)'s
reference to the period before an allowance
"becomes due and payable," an application for
pension benefits may be amended whether or not pension
benefits are due and payable upon the proper showing. (pp.
Here, the Board acted unreasonably by denying Christine's
request to modify David's retirement application upon its
stated grounds. The interests of justice and a liberal
reading of the applicable pension laws require that Christine
be given an opportunity to prove at a hearing that she
exercised reasonable diligence and seeks to modify
David's retirement selection for good cause upon
reasonable grounds. (pp. 8-9)
judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter
is REMANDED to the Board for further proceedings.
JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON,
FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in this opinion.