Statutory Plain Language Wins the Day for a Survivor Benefit Claimant

S.L.W. v. New Jersey Div. of Pensions & Benefits, ___ N.J. ___ (2019). The statute governing the police and firemen’s retirement system (“PFRS”) makes children and widowed spouses of police and firefighters who die after retirement eligible to receive survivor benefits. In this case, an adult woman with disabilities, S.L.W., sought to obtain such benefits after her father, a career law enforcement officer, died in retirement. The issue in Justice Timpone’s decision in this case today was whether S.L.W. qualified as a “child” under the statute.

The definition of “child” appears in N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21). That definition encompasses unmarried children under eighteen years old and certain older children who are enrolled in a secondary school or college, but also a 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 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.” S.L.W. claimed entitlement to benefits under that latter provision.

Defendant (“the Division”) denied benefits. The Division had promulgated a regulation that required benefit applicants to demonstrate that they had been dependent on the decedent as a condition of receiving benefits. S.L.W. had not made such a showing.

The matter went to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. On cross-motions for summary judgment, Justice Timpone stated, the Administrative Law Judge “acknowledged that the “literal reading” of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d)’s definition of ‘child’ supports S.L.W.’s argument, but found,without more, the literal interpretation ‘appears to run afoul of legislative objectives and public policy.’” The Division upheld that ruling. S.L.W. appealed to the Appellate Division, but that court affirmed as well. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed in a unanimous opinion.

Justice Timpone applied the “deferential” standard of review (arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, or lacking fair support in the record) in reviewing the Division’s action. He also noted that administrative regulations are presumed to be valid and reasonable unless a challenger shows that they are not. Here, however, the statutory language and the “strong public policy favoring the financial protection of a public employee’s family,” which the Court previously recognized in Saccone v. PFRS, 219 N.J. 369 (2014), led the Justices to rule in favor of S.L.W.

The “literal reading” of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21) that the Administrative Law Judge recognized but declined to adopt showed that nothing in that statute required dependency as a condition of survivor benefits. The Court was “obliged to interpret the statutory language” in light of the statute’s remedial character. “[T]he inclusion of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1(21)(d), specifically providing for children with disabilities and impairments that inhibit a child’s ability to work, demonstrates the PFRS scheme’s desire to use the delayed compensation benefits earned by members of PFRS to support their family members with disabilities. We see nothing in the statute’s plain language that requires the Division to limit those protections.”

That plain language, Justice Timpone said, “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. ” Nonetheless, he proceeded to review the legislative history of the statute, which “underscores the fact that the absence of a dependency requirement was an intentional choice of the Legislature.” S.L.W. will thus receive her survivor benefits.