Meyers v. State Health Benefits Comm’n, ___ N.J. ___ (2023). Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in a criminal case affirming a ruling of the Appellate Division substantially for the reasons that court, speaking there through Judge Gilson, gave. That action was discussed here. Today, the Court took the same action in this pension benefits case, affirming the Appellate Division by a 7-0 vote substantially for the reasons offered by Judge Smith in his opinion below. The Appellate Division’s opinion was summarized here.
The bulk of the Court’s opinion addressed the question of equitable estoppel, an issue that the Appellate Division found it unnecessary to reach. That issue arose because when plaintiff retired, “the Division of Pensions and Benefits (the Division) erroneously offered him retiree health benefits at ‘no premium cost.’ The mistake was discovered nearly two years later, and the State began deducting premium-sharing contributions from petitioner’s pension payments.”
The Supreme Court said that the Appellate Division had “correctly” determined that it did not need to reach the equitable estoppel issue. But the Court proceeded to do just that. After canvassing cases regarding the application of equitable estoppel against public bodies, which is “rarely invoked against a governmental entity,” the Court found that the doctrine could not apply here. Equitable estoppel is not available when an agency never had the power to do what the estoppel argument, if successful, would have brought about. Here, “the SHBC did not offer benefits within its authority and then change its mind. Petitioner was never statutorily eligible for the benefits he was mistakenly awarded …. As a result, the relief petitioner seeks in this matter is, quite simply, unavailable: the SHBC has no ability to make a decision that would be considered void under the law, and the doctrine of equitable estoppel does not apply in this matter.”
The Court concluded by saying that it was “declin[ing] to follow Juliano v. Borough of Ocean Gate, 214 N.J. Super 503 (Law Div. 1986), to the extent that the holding of that decision diverges from today’s opinion.” In Juliano, the Law Division had estopped a municipality from asserting that its appointment of the plaintiff there as a police officer who was older than age 35, even though N.J.S.A. 40A:14-127 barred police officer appointments to anyone under age 21 or over age 35.