Court Reinstates Princeton Borough Police Officer

 

As reported in the Trenton Times on January 25, 2011, a judge has ordered Princeton Borough to reinstate a police officer who was suspended without pay in 2008 and to reimburse the officer for back pay and legal fees totaling an estimated $400,000.

Last week, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg dismissed all charges against Sergeant Kenneth Riley related to allegations that he wrongfully accessed a police department video database of motor vehicle stops in January of 2008. Feinberg issued an order requiring the borough to reinstate Riley effective this week.

Riley allegedly reviewed a video of a police stop that involved a drive suspected of drunken driving. A sergeant and three patrolmen were involved in the stop, and two of the patrol officers were under Riley’s supervision. During the stop, the sergeant allowed the driver to urinate in bushes on private property. Riley learned about the incident and believed the sergeant had violated policy.

A borough officer for 17 years and sergeant since 2006, Riley was suspended with pay in March 2008 along with two other officers as part of an internal affairs investigation related to the access of the video database. He was indicted by a grand jury in September 2008 and the borough stopped paying him in late September of 2008.

The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office contended that Riley showed the footage to other officers in order to hurt the other sergeant’s standing in the department. Prosecutors claimed he was untruthful during questioning about when and why he accessed the database.

But, in November of 2009, a judge threw out the six-count indictment because Riley was authorized to access the database. Despite this finding, the Borough continued to pursue the case internally, racking up thousands of dollars more it would owe in back pay and legal fees. An administrative hearing officer upheld Riley’s suspension, which Riley then appealed in Superior Court.

Riley, who earned a salary of $103,706 annually, is owed about 28 months of pay, or more than $241,000, plus money he spent on health insurance and legal fees, for a total estimated to be about $400,000. Including the borough’s fees for its own lawyer, staff, and an administrative hearing officer, the case could cost borough taxpayers about $500,000.

Councilman Roger Martindell, a vocal critic of the borough’s handling of disciplinary matters, called the pursuit of disciplinary action against Riley “a colossal waste for borough taxpayers.” “It appears that the borough has spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of disciplinary action against Sgt. Riley without a firm foundation for doing so,” he said.

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Removal of Corrections Officer Affirmed

www.state.nj.us/csc/

On July 20, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Latief Dickerson, Hudson County, Docket No.: A-1323-08T2. In the case, Latief Dickerson appealed from a final decision of the Civil Service Commission (“Commission”) terminating his employment as a corrections officer with the Hudson County Department of Corrections (“Department”).

On May 5, 2006, the Department served a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action on Dickerson charging him with: (1) incompetency, inefficiency or failure to perform duties; (2) insubordination; (3) conduct unbecoming an employee; and (4) neglect of duty. These charges stemmed from Dickerson’s failure to satisfy mandatory training requirements and to obtain permission for his outside employment, as well as his arrest in Tuxedo, New York for various motor vehicle violations and criminal possession of a firearm.

Following a departmental hearing, Dickerson received a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action on July 19, 2006, finding him guilty of the charges and ordering his removal from office effective immediately. Dickerson contested the decision and requested a hearing before the Office of Administrative Law. That hearing was held on January 2 and March 12, 2008, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

After the hearings, the ALJ determined that the Department failed to sustain its burden in sustaining the charges against Dickerson with the exception of conduct unbecoming a public employee by driving a motor vehicle while unlicensed. However, given Dickerson’s extensive prior disciplinary history, the ALJ ordered that Dickerson be fined 90 working days’ pay.

The Commission, upon its de novo review of the record, disagreed with the ALJ’s decision and upheld the Department’s decision to terminate Dickerson’s employment. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Dickerson argued that the Commission erred in failing to affirm the decision of the ALJ. Specifically, Dickerson contended that the Commission imposed an improper standard of review when it stated that it did not “agree” with the ALJ’s determination. Rather, Dickerson argued the Commission has the authority to modify or reverse the decision of the ALJ if the decision was not supported by credible evidence in the record or was otherwise arbitrary.

After considering Dickerson’s arguments, the Appellate Division affirmed the Commission’s determination and sustained the removal. The Court found the Commission’s decision comported with the applicable law regarding the review of ALJ decisions and was supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. Specifically, the Court found, in rejecting and modifying the ALJ’s findings and conclusions, the Commission stated with particularity the reasons for doing so and made new findings supported by competent and credible evidence in the record.

Appellate Division Affirms Police Officer's Removal for Misconduct

On June 3, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Torres Mayfield, Docket No.: A-2969-08T1. In the case, Torres Mayfield appealed from the final decision of the Civil Service Commission (“Commission”) terminating him as an Atlantic City police officer for misconduct.

Mayfield was charged with violations of Atlantic City Police Department Rules and Regulations relating to a domestic dispute involving J.M., who is deaf. In the early morning hours on April 1, 2006, J.M. sought help from police complaining that she was assaulted by her boyfriend, Mayfield. She was bruised and beaten by Mayfield because he thought she was communicating on the computer with an old boyfriend. Mayfield punched her in the face and threatened to hang himself if she left him. That night J.M. was distraught, upset and scared. She was treated in the hospital and photographed.

J.M. eventually dismissed her municipal court charges against Mayfield. She refused to testify at the administrative hearing because Mayfield is the father of her child and they resided together. She was arrested and forced to appear at the administrative hearing. At the hearing, she was defiant and appeared distraught, upset and scared.

During the investigation, Mayfield said that on the night in question he was with Rodney Jamal Armstrong and Ali Cottrell. Mayfield told the investigating detective that when they arrived at his house, J.M. said she was hit by a boot thrown by Mayfield’s son. Armstrong testified he was at a club with Cottrell, but not Mayfield. Armstrong said Mayfield called him telling him and Cottrell about the boot.

The Administrative Law Judge disbelieved the testimony from J.M. that she was struck by a boot. The injuries were not consistent with being struck by a boot, and it was clear to the ALJ that J.M. did not want to contribute to the case against Mayfield. The ALJ found that Mayfield was untruthful by attempting to create an alibi and blame his son. As such, the ALJ found Mayfield assaulted J.M. and was untruthful in his response to the investigation. The Commission adopted the findings of fact made by the ALJ and found the termination of Mayfield as a police officer was justified. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, Mayfield contended the administrative decision was not based on legally competent evidence and that, even if the record supports a finding of guilt, his termination was not in accordance with the principles of progressive discipline.  The Appellate Division rejected his arguments and affirmed his termination. Specifically, the Court found that Mayfield failed to demonstrate that the ALJ’s decision was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Moreover, the Court agreed with the ALJ that Mayfield’s offenses in this case were severe enough to warrant his removal despite lack of a substantial prior disciplinary history.

Termination of Internal Affairs Officer Who Disclosed Pending Investigation Affirmed

On June 1, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Michael Sottilare, Department of Corrections Hudson County, Docket No.: A-4761-08T3. In the case, Michael Sottilare appealed from a Civil Service Commission (“Commission”) decision affirming the Hudson County Division of Personnel’s termination of his employment with the county’s Department of Corrections.

Sottilare, after more than ten years as a corrections officer, received four preliminary notices of disciplinary action arising from events commencing on November 30, 2005 and continuing through December 23, 2005. The final incident resulted in his termination.

While on leave due to an on-the-job injury, Sottilare was videotaped working at a construction site in contravention of Hudson County’s policy requiring persons on leave to remain at home unless they are receiving medical care or purchasing medication. A disciplinary charge of malingering issued as a result. Shortly thereafter, on December 23, 2005, Sottilare made a telephone call to the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 109 office in order to obtain legal representation for the hearing scheduled on the malingering charge and to request a postponement. Officer Shaara Marie Green, then the Vice President of PBA Local 109, answered the phone call.

When Green testified before the Office of Administrative Law, she said she told Sottilare that the union could not provide him with legal representation because the Internal Affairs Unit (“IAU”) officers were no longer members. Sottilare had been assigned to IAU since 1995 or 1996. Green also told Sottialre to obtain his own attorney, and gave him the name of the person that his attorney should contact in order to request the postponement.

Green also testified that after she told Sottialre that PBA Local 109 could not provide him with counsel, Sottilare informed her that she was under investigation by IAU. Sottialre explained to Green that surveillance was being initiated because she was reportedly living with an ex-inmate in violation of departmental policy. 

Green immediately telephoned Ricardo Alves, Sottilare’s supervisor at IAU, to report the conversation. When Alves testified, he confirmed that he received a call from Green about the complaint that had been filed against her and that Sottilare had told her that she was the subject of an IAU investigation. Deputy Warden David Krusznis confirmed that Green was being investigated and said that disclosure of the existence of a pending IAU investigation is a violation of departmental policies and procedures, as well as of guidelines promulgated by the Office of the Attorney General.

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Removal of Corrections Officer Sustained

On May 18, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Linda Reid, Riverfront State Prison, Docket No.: A-3145-08T2. In the case, Linda Reid appealed from the final determination of the Civil Service Commission sustaining the charges of: (1) conduct unbecoming a public employee; and (2) filing a false report; and the sanction of removal from her position as a Senior Corrections Officer at Riverfront State Prison.

Reid began working as a corrections officer at Riverfront State Prison on July 26, 2002. As a result of an incident occurring on August 6, 2005, she was charged with assaulting an inmate and filing a false report in which she represented she had been the victim. The charges were sustained at a departmental hearing and on April 25, 2007, she was removed from employment. Following an appeal, the contested case was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law, wherein a hearing was conducted on April 30, 2008.

Testimony and evidence were presented by Captain Tommy Stahl regarding the internal affairs investigation, which concluded that Reid had assaulted an inmate and misrepresented that she was the victim; Officers Cherril Davis and Dyshella Kee who were eyewitnesses to the incident and reported that the inmate used profanity towards Reid but did not strike her, and that Reid beat the inmate and falsely claimed he assaulted her; and nurse Evelyn Mamuyac who observed only a slight swelling on Reid’s right cheek and lower lip. Reid testified on her own behalf stating that the inmate used profanities indicating he had to use the restroom after which an argument ensued and the inmate pushed her and hit her in the face, causing swelling to the right side of her face and lip and resulting in a scar under her right eye. She further testified to her exemplary performance assessment review from June 15, 2004 through June 15, 2005.

On November 14, 2008, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an initial decision, making express credibility assessments and finding Reid engaged in the charged conduct. Based on several inconsistencies in Reid’s testimony, the ALJ discredited her version of the events as self-serving. In determining the appropriate sanction, the ALJ considered Reid’s status as a Senior Corrections Officer, which “subjects her to a higher standard of conduct and responsibility than is required of other public employees.” Consequently, the ALJ found this conduct so egregious as to warrant removal despite the absence of a disciplinary history. On January 16, 2009, the Commission issued a final determination adopting the ALJ’s initial decision as to the charges and the sanction of removal. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, Reid challenged the agency’s determination on the charges as not based on sufficient credible evidence in the record. She further contended the penalty of removal is not reflective of progressive discipline and, as such, the sanction should be reduced.

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Dissemination of Photograph Warrants Suspension

On March 23, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Keith Curry, Vernon Township, Docket No.: A-4662-07T2. In the case, Keith Curry, a police officer with the Vernon Township Police Department (“the Department”), appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board (“the Board”) rejecting the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) initial decision reducing his suspension to 15 days and imposing a 30 day suspension for conduct unbecoming a public employee.

On March 31, 2005, a murder-suicide occurred in Vernon Township. Detective Sean Talt participated in the crime scene investigation and took a photograph of the suicide victim on his cellular telephone. Although not involved in the investigation, Curry asked Talt if he could view the photograph, as he had never been involved in such an investigation. Talt forwarded the photograph to Curry via cellular telephone and advised him not to share the photograph with anyone else, describing it as “for police eyes only.” Despite these instructions, Curry forwarded the photograph to a civilian female friend and told her to view it and delete it. However, before being deleted, this individual’s brother viewed the photograph, forwarded it to his own cellular phone, and shared it with several other members of the public.

Curry was charged with conduct unbecoming a public employee and violation of departmental rules and regulations. As to the latter, the ALJ concluded that the Department had not demonstrated a violation of a rule or regulation, but the ALJ concluded that “appellant’s conduct constituted conduct unbecoming a public employee, as it clearly signaled poor judgment.” 

On appeal, Curry does not challenge the finding, but argues that the 30 day suspension imposed by the Board was excessive. The Appellate Division rejected Curry’s argument and affirmed the Board’s determination. After carefully reviewing the record, the Court found no abuse of discretion and was satisfied the Board’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious and the suspension imposed was justified. According to the Court, the police investigation and the rights of the family may have been compromised by the unlawful distribution of the photograph.  Specifically, the Court indicated that there is a significant difference between sharing evidence with a fellow police officer and exposing the same evidence to the public for no good or valid reason.

The case illustrates the importance of law enforcement officers to not disseminate case evidence to the public and be guided in their use of cellular telephones. Though the technology age and the use of cellular telephones has no doubt aided law enforcement and streamlined certain investigations, they have also increased the exposure of law enforcement officers and increased the likelihood of investigations being compromised.

Irvington Township Police Officer Terminated

 

On December 24, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Eugene I. Otto, Police Department, Township of Irvington, Docket No.: A-1112-08T3. In the case, Eugene Otto appealed from a final decision of the Civil Service Commission finding that his removal as a member of the Irvington Police Department was justified and dismissing his appeal.

On February 1, 2006, Otto was served with fifteen separate disciplinary charges for violating various provisions of the Irvington Police Manual. Various offenses were alleged, including withholding information, failing to perform his duties, insubordination, using derogatory terms, and being untruthful. Following a departmental hearing, all the charges were sustained, and Otto was removed from the force. 

Otto appealed to the Merit System Board, now known as the Civil Service Commission, and a hearing was held before an administrative law judge who sustained the following charges: one count of conduct unbecoming a public employee, two counts of being untruthful, and one count of using derogatory terms. The administrative law judge also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the remaining charges and they were dismissed. He also concluded that the charge of using derogatory language was not of sufficient import to warrant significant discipline, but the remaining charges constituted “mutinous and disruptive behavior” that, in light of Otto’s disciplinary hearing, warranted his dismissal from the force. The Civil Service Commission agreed.  This appeal followed.

On appeal, Otto contended that the charges against him should have been dismissed as untimely, that certain evidence was insufficient to support the charges against him, and that the punishment of dismissal was arbitrary and capricious. The Appellate Division found: (1) the disciplinary charges were timely filed within 45 days of the prosecutor’s office advising the township that it had determined that Otto’s statements were not truthful; (2) Otto’s actions constituted conduct unbecoming a public employee; (3) Otto’s charges that that department chief had deliberately shirked his responsibilities and acted out of improper racial motivations was not protected speech and therefore was not speech for which he could not be disciplined; and (4) the sanction of removal was not unduly severe give Otto’s disciplinary record and the gravity of the offenses.  As such, the Court affirmed the Civil Service Commission’s decision.

Termination of Corrections Officer Sustained

 

On December 21, 2009, the Appellate Division decidedIn the Matter of Edwin Garcia, Department of Corrections Hudson County, Docket No.: A-1404-08T3. In the case, Edwin Garcia appeals from the final administrative action of the Civil Service Commission, terminating his employment as a corrections officer with the Hudson County Department of Corrections.

At issue were two disciplinary matters. In the first, the County maintained that Garcia failed to include in a report the fact that another officer had lunged at a handcuffed inmate and grabbed the inmate’s shirt. As a result, the County charged Garcia with insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, neglect of duty, and other sufficient cause. In the second disciplinary matter, the County asserted that, while involved in an incident with an inmate, Garcia used excessive force despite being ordered numerous times to cease. For this incident, Garcia was charged with conduct unbecoming a public employee, neglect of duty, and other sufficient cause. The County sought to terminate Garcia’s employment.

The County held a hearing on the disciplinary charges on March 2, and April 4, 2007, wherein the hearing officer sustained the charges. A final notice of disciplinary action terminating Garcia’s employment was issued on June 7, 2007. Garcia appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge.

The ALJ sustained both charges, finding, with respect to the first incident, that “Garcia submitted a report omitting the use of excessive force on an inmate” and, with respect to the second incident, that “Garcia used excessive force to subdue inmate E.B. by striking him, although ordered to desist by superior officers.” In the Initial Decision, the ALJ concluded that Garcia had committed conduct unbecoming a public employee, neglect of duty, and insubordination. In light of Garcia’s prior record and the nature of these offenses, the ALJ imposed the sanction of removal. The Commission, in its independent evaluation of the record, concluded that the removal was justified. This appeal ensued.

 On appeal, Garcia argued the findings of the Commission were not justified and the sanction of removal was arbitrary and capricious. The Appellate Division affirmed Garcia’s termination. Specifically, the Court found that there was substantial credible evidence supporting the findings of the ALJ and the conclusions reached by the Commission. The Court also determined the sanction of termination for the infractions is not unreasonable or disproportionate in light of the offenses, particularly when viewed in conjunction with Garcia’s prior disciplinary record.     

Suspension of Transit Police Sergeant Sustained

 

On September 8, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Sergeant Maryelyn Conway, Docket No.: A-6162-07T3. In the case, Sergeant Maryelyn Conway appeals from an administrative determination of the New Jersey Transit Police Department suspending her for a period of four days for two related minor disciplinary infractions.

On the night of December 13, 2004, a car crashed onto an embankment above the New Jersey Transit train tracks in Waldwick. The vehicle was in a precarious position, with only a small tree preventing it from falling onto the tracks. Due to the danger that the vehicle might fall, train traffic in both directions was stopped.

Conway, a sergeant with the New Jersey Transit Police Department, was the supervising officer on duty at the time of these events. She did not go to the scene of the accident, but rather New Jersey Transit Police Officer Victor Migliorino was sent there. He reported to her that the Waldwick fire department, police, and emergency medical personnel were present, and that Waldwick personnel had taken charge of the scene. He did not believe Conway’s presence at the scene was necessary. She later deployed two other officers to the scene, contending that she did so in order that one of the officers could acquire more experience. She received periodic reports of the status of the scene from the officers present. She acknowledged in one radio transmission that it would have been easier if she were present. The New Jersey Transit police officers present did not play an active role in attending to the accident scene since Waldwick personnel were in charge. About an hour and one half after Conway was advised of the incident, the car was removed, and normal train traffic resumed.

Disciplinary charges were filed against Conway on January 10, 2005, due to her failure to go to the accident scene. She was charged with violating a General Order, which requires a police sergeant, as part of her duties and responsibilities, to “direct[ ] and participate[ ] in activities at the scene of emergencies.” Conway was also charged with “unsatisfactory performance” due to her failure to respond to the scene herself. 

The internal disciplinary hearing was conducted on May 20, 2008. In a lengthy written opinion, the hearing officer found the charges to be substantiated. In the final agency decision dated July 1, 2008, New Jersey Transit Police Chief Jospeh C. Bober found Conway guilty of both charges and imposed a two-day suspension for each charge, for a total suspension of four days. This appeal ensued.

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Corrections Officer Charged In Fake Grenade Incident

 

As reported by the Asbury Park Press on August 24, 2009, Keith Trimmer, 41, a senior corrections officer at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, has been charged with bringing an imitation hand grenade into the facility on May 13, 2009, creating a disturbance, according to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.

Other correction officers saw the device, prompting a response from the Department of Corrections’ Special Operations Group. The Special Operations Group provides tactical and technical support during a crisis. 

The incident was investigated by the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, Major Crimes Unit and the Department of Corrections, and the Special Investigations Division of Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility. As a result, Officer Trimmer has been suspended without pay since May 15, 2009.

To read the article in its entirety, please click on the following link.

Suspension of Hudson County Corrections Officer Upheld

 

On August 17, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Juan Melendez, Docket No.: A-4617-07T1. In the case, Juan Melendez, a Hudson County Corrections Officer, appealed from a final administrative determination of the Merit System Board (“Board”) imposing a fifteen-day suspension for neglect of duty and other sufficient cause warranting discipline.

The Board adopted the initial determination of an Administrative Law Judge on a remand following his first determination that the suspension should only be for three days following Hudson County’s suspension of thirty days. On appeal, Melendez argues that: (1) the decision of the Board upholding the charges is not supported by credible evidence in the record; (2) the penalty of a fifteen day suspension is at odds with the concept of progressive discipline and appellant’s prior disciplinary history; and (3) he is entitled to attorneys’ fees based on having prevailed on all or substantially all of the primary issues.

The testimony before the ALJ revealed that Sgt. Kevin Orlik reported, and testified, that Melendez was asleep at his post in a trailer annexed to the jail on March 19, 2006 when Orlik and other officers arrived to conduct a search of the cells. In his testimony, Orlik testified that when he entered the trailer he “saw Officer Melendez reclined back in a chair with a roll of toilet paper as a pillow or cushion behind his neck,” “his eyes were closed,” and he was “motionless” as he was observed “for approximately a minute to two minutes” until other officers entered the trailer and started to make noise. Melendez testified that he wasn’t sleeping and told that to Orlik when he directed Melendez “to write a report on why [he] was sleeping.” Melendez challenged Orlik’s credibility by noting that his written report omitted details embodied in his testimony.

There was also testimony about the practice of standing when a superior officer enters the room. Melendez did not do so on the night in questions, and testified that it wasn’t a “regular routine” and he generally did not do so. Although the failure to stand was not itself a basis for discipline, it was determined to be relevant to the issue of “attentiveness” at the time, as well as to the ALJ’s finding that the inattentive conduct was a “sufficient cause” for the three-day suspension he initially imposed.

On the remand, despite making credibility determinations against Orlik because of the failure to include certain details in his written report, the ALJ found neglect of duty and “other sufficient cause” for the discipline, and found that “the failure to stand and acknowledge Sgt. Orlik’s when he entered the trailer to constitute being inattentive.”

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Suspension of Newark Police Officer Upheld

 

On July 31, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Eddie Gonzalez, Docket No.: A-0644-07T2. In the case, Eddie Gonzalez, a Newark Police Officer, appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board (“Board”) adopting the findings of fact and conclusions of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), concluding that Gonzalez engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee and violating certain Newark Police Department (“Department”) rules and regulations. The Board adopted the ALJ’s recommendation and imposed a six-month suspension.

In June 2003, Richard Diaz lived in Newark, and Gonzalez was his next-door neighbor. Diaz and Gonzalez were involved in a dispute, which resulted in Diaz filing a harassment claim against Gonzalez alleging that Gonzalez kissed Diaz’s minor daughter. On June 9, 2003, Newark Police Officer Philip Turzani was assigned as a dispatcher for the Department. Near the end of his 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. shift, he received a call from Gonzalez asking Turzani if he would like Gonzalez to bring him coffee. 

Gonzalez then arrived at the Newark Police and Fire Public Safety Communications Center (“Center”) at approximately 1:30 p.m., in plainclothes, and requested that Turzani run a license plate number through the Department’s computer system. Turzani asked Gonzalez if his purposes for running the plate were “legal,” and Gonzalez responded that his neighbor was trying to obtain a job and wanted to check his driving history. Turzani admitted to running the license plate, but could not recall the name of the individual connected with the search. Turzani stated that Gonzalez viewed the screen with the results on it.

Upon returning home from vacation on June 19, 2003, Diaz received twelve motor vehicle summonses in the mail. The summonses were allegedly issued by Officer Edward Sculthorpe of the Department on June 9, 2003 at approximately 2:00 p.m. Diaz challenged the summonses, claiming that he had not been stopped by a Newark police officer on that date. At the court hearing regarding the summonses, Officer Sculthorpe denied writing them and they were dismissed.

The summonses prompted a further investigation as on June 25, 2003, Diaz filed an Internal Affairs complaint with the Department against Gonzalez. In response to the complaint, Captain Robert Sbaraglio of the Department spoke with Sculthorpe, who confirmed that he had not written the summonses. Following the dismissal of the summonses, Sbaraglio conducted a preliminary investigation and identified the summons book that had been issued to Sculthorpe as the source of the summonses. Sbaraglio then had both Gonzalez and Sculthorpe submit administrative reports regarding the summonses. Both denied issuing the summonses.

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Termination of Corrections Officer Reversed

 

On July 16, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Michael Brown, Monmouth County, Docket No.: A-5157-07T3. In the case, Michael Brown appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board (“Board”) upholding the termination of his employment as a Monmouth County Corrections Officer after finding that he tested positive for marijuana.

Brown was employed by Monmouth County as a corrections officer for approximately fifteen to seventeen years. According to Captain Thomas J. Philburn, Personnel Captain at the correctional facility, Brown was “a very low-keyed, soft-spoken individual” who did his job and had no prior disciplinary problems other than some minor “attendance-related issues.”

The County uses National Safety Compliance (“NSC”), a safety services and compliance company certified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, to perform random drug tests on its employees in accordance with the County’s substance abuse policy. NSC, in turn, employs Lab One, located in Kansas, to perform the actual laboratory tests on the samples.

On July 13, 2004, Brown was randomly selected for a drug test pursuant to the County’s policy. When the test was reported as positive for marijuana use, the matter was heard internally and Brown was found to have violated the County’s substance abuse policy. After a final notice of disciplinary action was served on Brown on August 24, 2004, the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (“OAL”) as a contested case.

A hearing was held before the OAL on December 7, 2005 and two witnesses testified on behalf of the County, Captain Philburn and Ronald Raslowsy, President of NSC. Neither of the witnesses had any personal knowledge of the procedures used for the testing, nor could they establish a chain of custody from the time the sample was taken to the time it was purportedly tested at the laboratory in Kansas.

Radomsky testified that he “believed” that the Attorney General guidelines for testing a law enforcement officer were followed, but had no personal knowledge as to whether they actually were. He did know, however, that the proper interview form was not used. He had no knowledge of who was present when Brown was tested, who witnessed the test, whether the sample was properly labeled, packaged and shipped, or who participated in the shipping of the sample. Nevertheless, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rendered an initial decision on October 20, 2006 sustaining the charges and ordering Brown’s removal.

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Termination of Municipal Patrolman Upheld

 

On June 11, 2009, the Appellate Division decided Michael Kappre v. Borough of Paulsboro, Docket No.: A-3573-07T3. In the case, the Paulsboro Police Chief filed misconduct charges against Michael Kappre, a former patrolman and sniper for the Paulsboro Police Department’s SWAT team. The Borough of Paulsboro sought Kappre’s termination. Kappre pleaded not guilty to the charges filed and a hearing was held before a hearing officer. Following administrative review, the hearing officer upheld the decision to terminate Kappre.

Kappre filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, seeking a de novo review pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150. Judge Farrell heard additional testimony from Kappre and Chief Thomas Sullivan of the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office and rendered factual findings and conclusions in a written opinion. The trial judge sustained three charges of insubordination and untruthfulness and one charge of incapacity to hold office. Accordingly, Judge Farrell concluded the charges warranted Kappre’s removal. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, Kappre argued the charges lodged against him should have been dismissed because the record does not support his conduct demonstrated insubordination. Moreover, Kappre asserted there was a lack of credible evidence in the record to suggest he committed misconduct and the trial judge erred in discounting the testimony of his expert.

After evaluating the record in light of the arguments raised by Kappre in conjunction with the applicable legal standards, the Appellate Division affirmed Judge Farrell’s determinations. The Court was satisfied from its review of the record that Judge Farrell’s findings of fact were supported by substantial credible evidence and the conclusions based thereon should not be disturbed. Specifically, the Court noted that deference to Judge Farrell’s findings, which include determinations of credibility, was particularly appropriate in this case since they were substantially influenced by his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the “feel” of the case, which the Appellate Division, as a reviewing court, cannot enjoy.

PERC Proposes Temporary Rules Regarding Non-Civil Service Law Enforcement & Firefighters

Recently, the Public Employment Relations Commission (“PERC”) has proposed temporary rules to implement the provisions of L.2009, c.16. That law allows non-Civil Service law enforcement officers and firefighters who are terminated pursuant to a complaint or charges not involving any alleged violation of criminal law to have the option of having their terminations reviewed by means of binding arbitration.

Review through binding arbitration is an alternative to review through a proceeding in the Superior Court pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-22, pertaining to firefighters, and/or N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150, pertaining to law enforcement personnel. The new statute is applicable to terminations for non-criminal conduct in which the underlying conducts occurs after June 1, 2009. In addition, the new statute directs that PERC establish a special panel of arbitrators to review the terminations.

The text of the proposed temporary rules can be found on the Rulemaking page of the NJ PERC Web Site or by clicking on the following link.

Following receipt of comments from interested parties, PERC plans to adopt temporary rules. The temporary rules can remain in effect for thirteen (13) months. Before that period expires, PERC plans to propose and adopt permanent rules in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act.

Comments on the temporary rules can be submitted by May 15, 2009 to: Lawrence Henderson, Chariman, Public Employment Relations Commission, P.O. 429, Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0429 or via fax to (609) 777-0089 or email to lhenderson@perc.state.nj.us. 

It goes without saying that these rules will have a significant impact upon numerous New Jersey Public Safety Officers going forward. As such, please check this blog periodically to ascertain updates regarding the adoption of these temporary rules.

 

Termination of Middlesex County Sheriff's Officer Upheld

On April 28, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Joan Ivan, Docket No.: A-1070-07T2.  Following a hearing conducted on April 15, 2003, appellant, Joan Ivan (“Ivan”), a Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officer, was suspended for thirty days as the result of disciplinary charges stemming from her alleged failure to truthfully report smoking by a fellow officer while in an official vehicle. In contrast, the officer committing the prohibited offense, after pleading guilty, was given a four-day suspension that could be served use of vacation days. Ivan appealed to the Merit System Board on May 16, 2003.

Thereafter, on August 22, 2003, Ivan was terminated when, in nine attempts over three days, she was unable to requalify for use of her service weapon. She appealed on September 12, 2003 and she filed an order to show cause on September 19, 2003, in which she contended that the Sheriff’s Department had violated her right to due process of law as the result of its failure to conduct a hearing prior to termination. The Department reinstated Ivan and served her with a preliminary notice of disciplinary action on September 29, 2003. Following a hearing on September 30, 2003, Ivan was served, on October 14, 2003, with a final notice of disciplinary action removing her from her position.

The two matters were referred to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing, where they were consolidated for that purpose without objection. Following the hearing, at which testimony was given by numerous witnesses, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) recommended dismissal of the charge leading to Ivan’s suspension, but affirmance of the termination decision. No attorney’s fees were awarded. The Merit System Board adopted the ALJ’s decision, and this appeal followed. On appeal, Ivan challenged the Board’s failure to award counsel fees in connection with her appeal from the thirty day suspension, and she challenges the Board’s adoption of the ALJ’s findings with respect to her termination and the ALJ’s legal ruling with respect to the admissibility of expert testimony in connection with her termination.

The Appellate Division affirmed the Merit System Board’s determination in its entirety. Specifically, the Court rejected Ivan’s arguments that: (1) she was given insufficient opportunity to qualify with her weapon; (2) the ALJ should have admitted the testimony of her firearms qualification expert; and (3) she was entitled to counsel fees on her successful appeal from her suspension. After reviewing the decision of the ALJ and the Board in detail, the Court determined the Board’s action was supported by sufficient, credible evidence in the record as well as well-established statutory law and, therefore, was not arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.

 

Termination of Police Officer Arising from Substance Abuse Upheld

On April 15, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Cornelius Caruso, Docket No.: A-1612-07T1. In the case, Cornelius Caruso appealed his termination as police officer in the City of Orange Police Department.

Caruso became a police officer in 2000. In 2005, he began to experience serious problems related to his use of alcohol. He voluntarily entered a program at the Carrier Clinic in December 2005. When he did so, he failed to follow the Department’s requirement that he notify the communication supervisor and apply for a leave of absence. No charges were filed with respect to that omission.

Caruso left the Carrier Clinic in March 2006. He was found by the Department to be fit for duty and returned to work on April 1, 2006. Caruso was instructed to make periodic reports concerning his recovery, which instruction was confirmed in a letter from the City’s attorney to Caruso’s attorney. No such periodic reports were ever made.

The Department permits fifteen days of sick leave per year. The Department assessed Caruso for use of 2006 sick leave only during the period from January 1 to January 10, 2006. The period from January 11 to March 31, 2006, was charged as a combination of administrative and compensatory leave. After Caruso’s return to duty in April, he went out on sick leave from April 6 to April 18; May 10 to July 7; October 25 to November 4; and December 12 to the end of 2006. Consequently, by December 2006, Caruso had taken significantly more sick leave than was permitted by the Department.

On December 12, 2006, Caruso left work because of an eye infection. However, according to Caruso, his problem with alcohol use returned in December 2006. On December 22, 2006, Caruso left his home and traveled to Hazelden, a rehabilitation clinic located in Minnesota. He again failed to notify the communications supervisor, although others apparently notified one of his superiors who subsequently contacted Caruso and arranged for him to surrender his service weapon. Caruso also failed to complete the required form for a leave of absence.

As a result, on January 18, 2007, the City filed formal disciplinary charges against Caruso. The disciplinary charges were as follows: (1) performance of duty; (2) insubordination; (3) obedience to laws and rules; and (4) abuse of sick leave. 

Caruso left Hazelden and returned to New Jersey on January 19, 2007. He started intensive outpatient aftercare on January 23, 2007, which required his attendance at a program for four hours a day, four days per week, as well as attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.

 

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Trial Court Authority to Impose Discipline Different From Municipality Upheld

On March 31, 2008, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, decided the case Detective Sergeant Dean Ackermann v. Borough of Glen Rock and Glen Rock Police Department, Docket Number A-2947-07T2. In the case, the parties appealed and cross-appealed from an order entered by the trial court.

Plaintiff has been a member of the Glen Rock Police Department for more than twenty years. He holds the rank of sergeant and the title of detective. Defendants are the Borough of Glen Rock and its police department. On October 3, 2006, Steven D. Cherry, Chief of the Department, served Plaintiff with a disciplinary notice, charging him with acting contrary to good order and discipline and violating Glen Rock’s “No Tolerance Policy” with respect to wrongdoing in the workplace. The notice contained no recommendation with respect to discipline.

Three days later, Chief Cherry served an amended notice of disciplinary action which set forth nine charges. In the amended notice, Chief Cherry recommended that Plaintiff be suspended for three days without pay and be required to attend an approved course in sensitivity training. The charges were based upon complaints by Anna Maria Mattina, the Borough’s first female police officer. She alleged certain conduct by Plaintiff toward her was unwanted and harassing.

Plaintiff denied any wrongdoing, would not accept the proposed discipline, and requested a hearing. The hearing officer sustained the charges, but rejected the recommendation as to discipline. He recommended Plaintiff be suspended without pay for ten days as well as attend an approved course in sensitivity training. The report was submitted to the mayor and council, which accepted his findings but rejected the recommendation for discipline. The council passed a resolution suspending Plaintiff without pay for sixty days, demoting him to police officer and requiring completion of a course in sensitivity training before returning to active duty. 

In response, Plaintiff filed a three-count complaint in lieu of prerogative writ, contending that the evidence presented did not support the findings that were made, the procedure utilized did not conform to the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs policies and procedures that the Borough adopted, and that the increase in penalty was retaliatory.

The trial court, hearing the matter as a trial de novo, concluded that only two of the violations had been proven and that the penalty imposed by the Borough was excessive. The Court directed Plaintiff be suspended for two concurrent periods of thirty days without pay and complete a course in sensitivity training. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, the Appellate Division held that, when hearing a police disciplinary matter de novo, a trial court has the authority to impose a sanction other than that imposed by the municipality. In this case, the Court found no error in directing that Plaintiff not be demoted and instead imposing a suspension and directing attendance at sensitivity training. Moreover, the Court found that although Defendants violated the Attorney General’s guidelines for conducting a disciplinary hearing, the trial court correctly found that the errors did not prejudice the Plaintiff.

         

 

Corrections' Officer Suspension for Buying Home With Probationer Upheld

On March 30, 2009, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division decided the case In the Matter of Richard J. Rivera, Docket No. A-3672-07T2. In the case, Richard J. Rivera, a county corrections officer assigned to the Monmouth County Correctional Institute (“MCCI”), appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board suspending him for ten (10) days without pay for violating Rule 4.1.28 of the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department.

The alleged violation was based upon Rivera’s failure to disclose a relationship with a “current offender,” which includes probationers, after he purchased a home with a woman who was on probation. On appeal, Rivera contended the rule was unconstitutionally vague, both on its face and as applied to him. The Court, in rejecting Rivera’s arguments, noted that a serious conflict of interest could arise if a corrections officer maintained a close relationship with a probationer who violated his/her probation and ultimately became incarcerated. To support this, the Court cited Bowden v. Bayside State Prison, a 1993 Appellate Division case, which held, “[t]he need for proper control over the conduct of inmates in a correctional facility and the part played by proper relationships between those who are required to maintain order and enforce discipline and the inmates cannot be doubted.” Consequently, the Court affirmed the Board’s final decision and upheld the penalty imposed.

This case illustrates that correction officers who become socially and/or intimately associated with persons who are either incarcerated or on parole could be subject to discipline. As a result, all correction officers should consult their respective collective bargaining agreements and/or department policies to determine whether their particular employer places limits on fraternization with certain persons.

 

Potential for Reimbursement of Wages Received During Period of Suspension

On March 20, 2009, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey decided the case of Wade v. Colaner. In the case, plaintiff, a Tinton Falls police officer, was pulled over by New Jersey State Troopers for speeding. Plaintiff was subsequently charged with careless driving, obstruction of administration of law, and resisting arrest. On account of this incident, he was suspended from his position of employment.

Ultimately, plaintiff brought this action alleging excessive force and deliberate indifference. Defendants counterclaimed against Plaintiff for reimbursement of the wages paid to Plaintiff during his suspension and moved for summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s other claims. The Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s excessive force claim, but dismissed Plaintiff’s deliberate indifference claim. Moreover, the Court granted the Tinton Falls Defendants’ motion for summary judgment finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to a pre-suspension hearing and also granted the motion for summary judgment for reimbursement of the wages paid to Plaintiff during his suspension.

This case shows that a public safety officer who is suspended from his or her employment and is continuing to receive their wages during the period of suspension potentially may have to reimburse their employer for the wages they have received. As a result, public safety officers should be conscious of this possibility in the event they are suspended from employment.

A similar type concept was the subject of previous posts to this blog regarding the 180 day bill recently signed into law. As you will recall, the bill, in essence, allows certain law enforcement officers and firefighters to regain pay status when appeals of termination are not resolved within 180 days. Under this bill, if an officer and/or firefighter has been receiving his/her base salary after expiration of the 180 day period and he/she ultimately loses their appeal, the officer and/or firefighter will be required to reimburse the employing agency of department all of the base salary received during the period of appeal. Certain rules of law such as these make it imperative for public safety officers to be informed regarding all the potential consequences in the event they are targeted for suspension and/or removal.   

 

Merit System Board Increase of Disciplinary Penalty Upheld

 On March 20, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Larry Martin, Docket No.: A-3271-07T3. In the case, Larry Martin, a police officer with the City of Jersey City, appealed from a disciplinary penalty imposed upon him by the Merit System Board.

Martin, who had been a member of the Jersey City Police Department for 22 years, failed to attend mandatory weapons qualification training for a new service weapon, a Glock .45 caliber handgun, on May 10, 2005. As a result, he was charged with “disobedience to a lawful order” and “absence without leave” in violation of the Police Department’s rules. After holding a hearing, Jersey City sustained the charges and imposed an eight-day loss of vacation days. Martin appealed to the Board.

The matter was referred to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) who conducted a hearing. The ALJ, in his decision, found that Martin had been given a direct order by his superior officer to attend the training session and failed to do so. The ALJ sustained the charges and the disciplinary penalty. Neither party filed exceptions and the matter went to the Merit System Board for a final decision.

After conducting its independent review of the record, the Merit System Board agreed the charges had been proven. However, the Board increased the penalty to a 120 day suspension based on Martin’s previous major disciplinary history. In reaching this conclusion, the Board considered the seriousness of the underlying incident, the concept of progressive discipline, and Martin’s prior record. This appeal ensued. 

On appeal, Martin contended that the Board’s decision to increase the penalty was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable and unsupported by the record. The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed the Board’s determination. The Court found no basis to overturn the decision and noted that Martin had defied a direct order of his superior officer, on a very important issue, namely firearms training. The Court further noted that Martin had a prior history of four substantial disciplinary sanctions. Based on the nature of the underlying infraction, Martin’s past history of disciplinary sanctions, and the Board’s policy of progressive discipline, the Court did not find the increase in the penalty to be arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. 

The case illustrates the principle that an agency can increase the penalty imposed upon a public safety officer in appealing a disciplinary determination. Many times, the increase will be upheld if the agency, such as the Civil Service Commission, adequately considered an officer’s disciplinary history, the nature of the underlying matter, and the policy of progressive discipline.

ATTORNEY GENERAL'S GUIDELINES MUST BE FOLLOWED IN INTERNAL AFFAIRS INVESTIGATION

 

In the matter of O’Rourke v. City of Lambertville, Docket No. A-0481-07T3, the Defendants appeal the trial court’s decision: (1) reversing the Lambertville City Council’s decision removing Plaintiff, Michael O’Rourke, from his position as a police officer; (2) reinstating Plaintiff to his position; and (3) denying their motion for reconsideration. Defendant, Bruce Cocuzza, is the city’s civilian police director. Plaintiff, a sergeant first class, was the police department’s Terminal Agency Coordinator (“TAC”) for the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) system, which contains a wide array of law enforcement information. 

The city charged Plaintiff with conducting unauthorized and improper employee background investigations, in defiance of Cocuzza’s direct order, and engaging in conduct subversive to the good order and discipline of the department in doing so. At the disciplinary hearing, Cocuzza testified that he and Plaintiff were discussing the temporary transfer of an employee from city hall to the department when Plaintiff told him that the employee would have to submit to a background check or be fingerprinted for security purposes. Cocuzza said he told Plaintiff that no action should be taken until Cocuzza received written authorization from “somebody in authority” and spoke with the city attorney regarding same. Later, Cocuzza learned Plaintiff had performed background investigations of five civilian employees of the department, including Cocuzza, without authorization.

After the officer assigned who was assigned to the department’s internal affairs unit declined to investigate because of his long-term social relationship with Plaintiff, Cocuzza decided to conduct the investigation himself. In his report, Cocuzza wrote that Plaintiff had been insubordinate and that his actions constituted a serious breach of discipline and a flagrant abuse of authority. 

Plaintiff testified that he performed the checks under his authority as TAC officer, indicating that under the State’s security policy anyone with access to the NCIC system had to have a background check and fingerprints taken. He also stated that he understood Cocuzza to mean that he should not ask anyone for their fingerprints, which he did not do. He did concede that he did criminal checks on five employees, including Cocuzza.

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STATE TROOPER'S CLAIM FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES DENIED

 

In the matter of Gary Stolinski v. State of New Jersey, Division of State Police, A-2412-07T3, the Appellate Division considered whether Gary Stolinski, a New Jersey State Trooper, was entitled to an award of counsel fees pursuant to N.J.S.A. 53:1-30, as a result of having to defend against an indictment charging official misconduct, credit card fraud, and identity theft.

On July 15, 2005, Stolinski was indicted and charged with official misconduct, credit card fraud, and identity theft based on the allegation that he used a State Police computer to make online credit card applications through the use of false information and by assuming the identity of others. Subsequent to being indicted, Stolinski was suspended from the force without pay.   

The indictment was ultimately dismissed on December 15, 2005. Thereafter, Stolinski was reinstated and reimbursed for the pay withheld during his suspension. Stolinski then demanded reimbursement for the counsel fees he expended in defending against the indictment. In response, the Attorney General’s office advised that the request for the payment of legal fees incurred in seeking back pay would be honored. However, the Division rejected the remaining aspects of Stolinski’s request and asserted there was no statutory basis for the reimbursement of attorney fees associated with: (1) the defense of criminal charges; (2) responding to the administrative disciplinary charge; or (3) seeking the expungement of his criminal record. This appeal ensued.

The Appellate Division concluded that the Division’s final agency decision was neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable because it was based upon a correct understanding of N.J.S.A. 53:1-30 and an accurate application of its terms to the allegations contained in the indictment. N.J.S.A. 53:1-30 provides that a law enforcement officer is entitled to be reimbursed only for those fees incurred “in an action or legal proceeding arising out of or directly related to the lawful exercise of police powers in the furtherance of official duties.”   

The Court determined N.J.S.A. 53:1-30 did not provide support for Stolinski’s claim because the allegations of the indictment were not directly related to his lawful exercise of police powers in the furtherance of official duties. In this case, Stolinski was alleged to have used a State Police computer to make false credit card application. Regardless of whether the allegations could or could not be substantiated, it is clear Stolinski was not charged with conduct that was in furtherance of his official duties on that occasion. As a result, the Court affirmed the Division’s determination.       

         

State Trooper Discipline Overturned

 

In the case of In the Matter of Mark Moncho, Mark Moncho, a Sergeant First Class, appealed a final decision of the Division of State Police finding him in violation of Article VI, Section 2a of the Division’s regulations (performance of duties) and imposing a ten day suspension.

Moncho was assigned to the State Police Construction Inspection Unit. The Construction Unit is a component of the Traffic Bureau and operates as a partnership between the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Department of Transportation. In this capacity, Moncho was responsible for overseeing five sergeants who, in turn, supervised subordinate troopers. His responsibilities included: (1) reviewing the patrol charts and weekly reports of the sergeants and the subordinates; (2) time-keeping; and (3) day-to-day supervision of the Construction Unit.

Ultimately, the Division of State Police charged Moncho with violating a series of rules and regulations involving billing and overtime. Moncho pled not guilty to the charges and, on June 28, 2004, the Division transmitted the matter to the Office of Administrative Law. After conducting numerous hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) concluded: (1) Moncho violated none of the specifications underlying disciplinary charges; and (2) nevertheless, Moncho was guilty of the performance of duties disciplinary charge based solely upon the amount of overtime he had earned. On August 2, 2007, the Division of State Police issued a final decision upholding the ALJ’s decision in its entirety. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, Moncho argued that when the ALJ found that the Division had not met its burden of proof as to the specifications in the charges, the ALJ dismissed all bases of liability of which Moncho had notice. Moreover, Moncho argued the Division’s decision to discipline him absent a showing that he engaged in fraud, misleading conduct, or the violation of a policy is arbitrary and capricious.

 

In its decision, the Appellate Division agreed with Moncho’s contentions. The Court concluded that the record did not support the Division’s decision and this was further compelled by the ALJ’s incongruous findings. In effect, the ALJ created a new basis on which to justify disciplinary action after hearing and rejecting the official charges and specifications lodged against Moncho. The Court further noted that at no time was Moncho ever notified that the accrual of overtime, in and of itself, could subject him to disciplinary action. Accordingly, the Court determined the final decision of the Division to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable and thereby vacated the penalty imposed. 

         

Policy of Progressive Discipline Circumvented/Dismissal of Officer Upheld

 

In the case of In the Matter of Carpenito, Sergeant Vincent Capenito appealed a final agency decision dismissing him from the Division of State Police. The Appellate Division sustained Carpenito’s dismissal and rejected his contention that the policy of progressive discipline required a less severe sanction.

On March 24, 2006, Carpenito was charged with five disciplinary infractions of the rules and regulations of the Division of State Police. The case was eventually transferred to the Office of Administrative Law as contested matter. A seven day hearing was conducted by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who issued an initial decision finding Carpenito guilty of the charges against him and recommending his termination of employment. Thereafter, Colonel Joseph Fuentes, Superintendent of the State Police, adopted the findings of the ALJ and dismissed Carpenito from the Division. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Carpenito argued: (1) there was insufficient evidence to support the findings that he engaged in conduct that warranted discipline; and (2) the sanction of dismissal was inconsistent with the general policy of progressive discipline. The Court, in rejecting Carpenito’s arguments, found that the Superintendent’s determination that Carpenito left his post while on duty and lied to investigators was based on Carpenito’s own admissions and, therefore, Carpenito’s contention that he was denied his right to cross-examine his wife because of her invocation of her Fifth Amendment right was of no consequence. 

Moreover, the Court found the Superintendent was entirely justified in terminating Carpenito’s employment due to the seriousness of the misconduct. The Court held that the Superintendent properly: (1) recognized that some disciplinary infractions are so serious that removal is appropriate notwithstanding a largely unblemished record and; (2) considered Carpenito’s prior disciplinary history and numerous occasions of alleged domestic disputes. As a result, the Court determined the application of progressive discipline was not appropriate in light of Carpenito’s egregious conduct.

This case illustrates an instance of where a general policy of progressive discipline will not be adhered to by a public employer. Should a disciplinary infraction be very serious in nature, a policy of progressive discipline can and will be abandoned so as to ensure a proper disciplinary response. This outcome should be noted by all public safety officers who intend to rely upon their employer’s policy of progressive discipline when contesting a disciplinary action. The seriousness of the misconduct, along with prior disciplinary history, may be used to circumvent a policy of progressive discipline and, therefore, may impose more serious consequences upon an officer than originally anticipated.  

         

         

 

Violation of Conflicts of Interest Law and Code of Conduct Not a Sufficient Basis for Official Misconduct

In State v. Thompson, A-2279-07T4, the Appellate Division held that a violation of the Conflicts of Interest Law and a code of conduct adopted pursuant thereto is not a sufficient basis for criminal prosecution for official misconduct.

In the case, the State appealed from an order dismissing 36 counts of a 42 count indictment. Thirty two counts charged six Treasury employees and two employees of OSI Collection Services, Inc., a vendor selected by the State, after competitive bidding, to collect tax deficiencies and delinquencies, with official misconduct. Four counts charged two of the State employees and the OSI employees with engaging in a pattern of official misconduct.

Twenty eight of the counts can be grouped into fourteen pairs. One count in each pair charged the State employee(s) and an OSI employee, as an accomplice, with the receipt of a benefit, including meals, entertainment, spa treatments and golf outings. The other count charged failure to report the receipt of the benefit to the appropriate ethics authority. In large part, the State relied on the Department’s Code of Ethics as the source of the duty allegedly breached.

Four counts also charged official misconduct when State employees failed to recuse themselves from the process involving an allegation of improper billing by OSI, the extension of OSI’s contract, selecting the committee that evaluated the bids, determined the winning bidder, and setting conditions on the bid that presumably gave OSI a competitive advantage in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2a.

The Appellate Division, in affirming the dismissal of the receiving and failure to report counts, held that reliance on a violation of the Conflicts of Interest Law alone does not set forth a basis to impose criminal sanctions under the official misconduct statute as the imposition of criminal sanctions does not follow from a simple conflict of interest. There must be some additional allegation of wrongdoing. 

Considering the case law regarding official misconduct, the Court concluded that the imposition of criminal sanctions does not follow from a simple conflict of interest. Culpability is not based on the receipt of a gift in the absence of some additional allegation of wrongdoing. The Conflicts of Interest Law does not set forth a basis for criminal liability under the official misconduct statute. Although it sets forth the ethical obligations of State employment, its terms are not self-executing and do not proscribe any conduct. 

The Court also noted that the Conflicts of Interest Law and Code of Ethics apply to all employees in the Department, providing general and generic rules. However, official misconduct requires an alleged failure to perform a duty specifically required of the defendant’s office. Moreover, the Conflicts of Interest Law does not provide sufficient notice that the unreasonable appearance of impropriety may lead to a defendant’s conviction of a crime.

         

Police Officer's Testimony is Protected Speech

 

In the case Reilly v. City of Atlantic City, 06-2591, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a police officer’s testimony in a police corruption case is protected speech and his superiors are not entitled to qualified immunity regarding his retaliation claim. 

Appellee, Robert Reilly, a former Atlantic City police officer, filed suit against Robert Flipping, the Director of Public Safety, and Arthur Snellbaker, the Chief of Police, claiming that they retaliated against him for his participation, including trial testimony, in an investigation into police corruption a decade earlier. The alleged retaliation involved defendants formally recommending Reilly be demoted and suspended for 90 days, despite, after an extensive investigation, an independent hearing officer’s recommendation that Reilly serve a four day suspension for violating police department regulations.

Reilly accepted Flipping’s offer that he retire instead of being disciplined. Thereafter, Reilly filed this action alleging defendants’ actions violated his First Amendment free speech rights and Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process. The District Court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the procedural due process claim, thereby declining to grant them qualified immunity. The Court also denied their motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claim. This appeal followed.

The Third Circuit indicated that determining whether a public official is entitled to qualified immunity involves a two-step analysis. First, the court must decide whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged and, if so, whether the right was clearly established. If the answer to the latter is “yes,” the defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity.

In analyzing whether Reilly had the claimed First Amendment right, the Third Circuit cited Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), which distinguished between employee speech and citizen speech and held that the First Amendment does not prohibit managerial discipline based on an employee’s expressions made pursuant to official responsibilities. Defendants argued under Garcetti they are entitled to qualified immunity on Reilly’s First Amendment claim because his testimony was made pursuant to his official duties and, thus, not protected by the First Amendment

In rejecting this argument, the Third Circuit noted: (1) every citizen owes the duty of giving testimony to aid in the enforcement of the law; (2) the overwhelming weight of authority concludes that an employee’s truthful testimony is protected by the First Amendment; and (3) there is a need to protect the integrity of the judicial process. Therefore, the Court concluded that the fact that Reilly’s official duties provided the impetus to appear in court is immaterial to his independent obligation as a citizen to testify truthfully. Reilly’s testimony constituted citizen speech and his claim is not foreclosed by the “official duties” doctrine announced in Garcetti and, as a result, defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. 

This case has significance for any public safety officer who is called to testimony in a matter related to his official duties. Public safety officers, as with other citizens, have an obligation to testify truthfully in a court proceeding not only to preserve the integrity of the judicial process, but to ensure just enforcement the law. More importantly, however, this case illustrates that an officer’s superiors who retaliate against him/her will not be entitled to qualified immunity in a subsequent civil suit.      

         

         

 

         

Minor Disciplinary Charges Challenged in the Superior Court of New Jersey

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic Vicinage, (DeLuccia, J.S.C.) recently interpreted a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) pertaining to discipline in the case of Whitaker v. Passaic County Sheriff's Department, 33-3-139.  In this case the Plaintiff appealed her right to challenge minor disciplinary charges which were previously dismissed for alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the CBA. 

Instead of proceeding with the grievance procedure as outlined under the CBA, Whittaker opted to challenge the minor discipline at a disciplinary hearing.  After the disciplinary hearing was decided, Whittaker next attempted to appeal the decision through the grievance procedure as outlined in the CBA.  Whittaker was denied the right to grieve the charges by her employer stating that she was precluded from doing so due to the fact that she had chosen to challenge the charges at a hearing and is thus not entitled to pursue the case by way of grievance. 

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, took the liberty to interpret the CBA and held that a reasonable interpretation of the agreement would permit an employee charged with a minor disciplinary infraction to proceed first to an administrative hearing to challenge the charges and then, if adverse action is taken by the employer, to demand arbitration of the dispute under the CBA. 

This is an interesting case in that it appears to give a Public Safety Officer "two bites at the apple" when challenging minor disciplinary charges.  Furthermore, we normally do not see Superior Court Judges stepping into disputes between public employers and employees especially when it comes to the interpretation of a CBA.  Interpretation of agreements is traditionally left to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) and the Appellate Division.  I think what we should take away from this case is that there is always more than one reasonable interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, and Public Safety Officers should not be afraid or hesitate in certain circumstances to challenge their employers in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division.

Appellate Division Rules that the Charge of Setting False Alarms Merges into Charge of Official Misconduct.

The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently ruled that a firefighter who has called in false alarms, goes to respond to the false alarms that he called in, and is convicted for Official Misconduct, N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2, as a result of this behavior, can not be convicted separately for the setting of the false alarms, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-3.  In the case of State v. Quezada, 33-2-1431, Judge Stern, the Presiding Judge of the Appellate Division, reasoned that under the legal doctrine of "merger",  the defendant could not be convicted of setting false alarms due to the fact that the actual official misconduct (calling in false alarms) was the underlying basis of the charge.  

Official Misconduct as it relates to public employees and their office is a second degree crime and carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.  Furthermore, the New Jersey criminal code lists a presumption of incarceration for second degree criminal convictions, meaning a court must specify why imprisonment is not imposed in a particular case.  In essence, a Public Safety Officer who strays from path truth and justice and is in hot water, may be able to avoid the conviction of the underlying offense that was the basis for the conviction of Official Misconduct. 

When it Comes to Public Employee Discipline--Watch Out for the Repercussions of Settlement Agreements

In the case entitled, In The Matter of Poplawski, 33-2-0649, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division rendered a decision that upheld the New Jersey Department of Personnel, Merit System Board's decision that the removal of the Appellant's name from a promotional list was proper due to his past disciplinary history.  Poplawski appealed his employer's action of removing his name from a promotional list due to his alleged adverse employment history.  Poplawski's employment history included two adverse actions that resulted in suspensions from employment due to charges centering around N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3 (a) 6, conduct unbecoming a public employee.  Both of the charges that resulted in suspension were disposed of by way of settlement agreement.  The Appellate Division held that the Merit System Board's actions were not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable due to the fact that the Appellant had actually agreed with the disposal of the disciplinary charges by a settlement and based upon the same, the action's of the board were upheld.

It is important to remember that the disposal of discipline by way of a settlement agreement may seem like a good idea when you are staring down the charges.  However, settlement agreements can have repercussions concerning promotion from a civil service list of eligibles.  Thus, if at all possible, when disposing of charges by way of settlement agreement, a clause that states that the discipline can not be used against the employee for promotion should be included.

Service as a Public Safety Officer and The First Amendment--Blurring the Line

In the case of Leek v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, 33-2-0497, a Senior Corrections Officer appealed the New Jersey Department of Personnel, Merit System Board's decision to uphold the Department's issuance of a thirty (30) day suspension for violation of the Department's internal rules and regulations and conduct unbecoming a public employee.  The case revolved around the conduct of Leek who repeatedly attended court hearings in uniform with a criminal defendant that was free on bail but had previously been a county jail inmate.  Leek further wrote a letter that identified himself as a Senior Corrections Officer and asked for leniency on behalf of the defendant. 

In defense of his actions Leek stated that he was acting in his capacity as an ordained minister and spiritual adviser on behalf of the inmate.  Leek never informed the Department or his superiors of his conduct and failed to request permission to appear on behalf of a defendant facing criminal charges in a New Jersey Court of Law.

Despite Leeks arguments that were based on his First Amendment rights, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division agreed with the Merit System Board that upheld the thirty day suspension imposed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections.  In summary, while Public Safety Officers do garner protections under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, they can not call upon these protections when their actions are detrimental to their employer, public perception, and their sworn law enforcement duties. 

Fundementals of the New Jersey Department of Personnel Disciplinary Process

          Achieving the desired level of discipline within a law enforcement unit is among the most important responsibilities of the law enforcement executive, and the governing body. Yet this is one of the most frequently neglected processes within many law enforcement agencies. This will be first of a series of Blog posts that concentrate on the public employee disciplinary process as promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Personnel under Title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code. Having a firm grasp of the disciplinary process is critical to the well being of all Public Safety Officers. Please take your time in reading these posts as they pertain directly to the security of your employment and the means that you support yourself and your families.

          The word “discipline” was originally defined by the courts as “instruction”, “teaching” or “training”. However, its meaning and the use of discipline has shifted toward a concept of control through punishment. This emphasis on control has resulted in discipline being viewed as a negative threat to employment rather than a mechanism for remediation and improvement. Too frequently rules of conduct and disciplinary procedures are used as an end in themselves, and their purpose in reaching departmental goals is forgotten.

          Focusing on the negative aspects of discipline diminishes morale and productivity. The first step that should be used toward positive discipline is to emphasize instruction and de-emphasize control. This requires the law enforcement executive to focus on organizational practices. Unfortunately in today’s world of public employment, this is rarely the case.

          In exercising appropriate discipline, the executive must first define the goals and objectives of the agency's units, and then announce management's expectations to guide the units toward the realization of those goals. The law enforcement executive must establish a means to monitor performance and to correct improper actions. This approach to management as it relates to discipline insures that all subordinates know and understand what must be done, why it must be done, how it must be done, and when it must be done.

          Employees must be clearly told what constitutes satisfactory performance, non-satisfactory performance, and how non satisfactory performance can lead to appropriate discipline. In addition, supervisors and managers must know when and how to take necessary corrective action. To achieve these goals, management must establish workable procedures for documenting all expectations and advising individuals of their duties and responsibilities.

          There are numerous levels of discipline under the rules and regulations of the New Jersey Department of Personnel to include:

  • Official Written Reprimand;
  • Fine;
  • Minor Suspension (1 to 5 days);
  • Major Suspension (6 to 180 days); and
  • Termination

          In our next post we will discuss the various levels of discipline that is recognized under 4A, and the concept of progressive discipline under the New Jersey Administrative Code.

Be Sure to Perfect your Appeal of Major Discipline within the Alloted Twenty (20) Day Time Period

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division, Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the decision of the Merit System Board, New Jersey Department of Personnel, that the appellant's failure to file his appeal of the Final Notice of Disciplinary Action within twenty (20) days from the issuance of the Final Notice of Disciplinary Action barred him from appealing said charges on any level. 

In the Matter of Santiago, New Jersey Department of Corrections, 25-2-1072, App. Div., the Appellant was employed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections as a Senior Corrections Officer.  The Appellant waived his Departmental or Agency Hearing pertaining to the Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action that charged him with conduct unbecoming a public employee.  His attorney requested the issuance of a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action subsequent to the waiver however the Appellant claimed that he never received said final notice despite the contentions of the New Jersey Department of Corrections that the same was issued.  Appellant waited five (5) months prior to pursuing the appeal and the Merit System Board refused to accept the appeal and transmit the case to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law for a De Novo hearing.

The Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the Merit System Board stating that the Appellant's delay of five (5) months in issuing his appeal was well beyond the allotted twenty (20) day period and his removal from employment was upheld.

The bottom line is that it is the employee's responsibility to ensure that his or her appeal of any major disciplinary action is perfected within 20 days of the issuance of the Final Notice of disciplinary Action.  Excuses such as the one offered by Santiago where five (5 ) months lapse before an appeal is filed will not be accepted nor recognized by the Courts.

Weingarten: Protecting Your Rights During The Investigatory Interview

This is the second entry drafted by Michael P. DeRose concerning the utilization and implementation of Weingarten rights by New Jersey Public Safety Officers.

Subsequent to the invocation of Weingarten Rights by a New Jersey Public Safety Officer, the supervising authority conducting the interview must:

  • cease questioning until the union representative arrives;
  • cancel or postpone the interview; or
  • inform the subject of the interview that the interview will be called off unless the subject voluntarily waives his or her right to union representation.

In this situation, the union representative serves many vital functions when present at an investigatory interview. First and foremost, the union representative is to meet and speak privately with the officer or first responder subject to the interview prior to its commencement. It is at this meeting coupled with information gathered from administration that the union representative should ascertain the charges against the union member and advise he or she how to answer questions posed by the authority conducting the interview. It is important to remember that under Weingarten the interviewing party must advise the union representative of the purpose and subject of the investigatory interview.

The union representative may also object to questions or tactics he/ she deems inappropriate or coercive that are utilized by the individual conducting the interview. Finally, at the conclusion of the interview, the union representative can offer mitigating circumstances to the employer or the authority conducting the interview, investigate leads, offer information to support the interviewee’s case and question the interviewee to either clear up information that has been provided or provide new information if needed.

Under Weingarten, the functions of the union representative at the investigatory interview does not exceed those set forth above. The union representative cannot dictate verbatim how the officer or first responder should answer questions posed in the interview. The representative can make assertions regarding the investigation; however, the authority conducting the interview has no obligation to take note of these assertions and can in fact ignore them. Furthermore, the authority conducting the investigatory interview has no duty to bargain with the union representative concerning any aspect of the investigation.

In conclusion, the single most important element for any New Jersey Public Safety Officer to retain pursuant to reviewing this blogosphere article is the importance of invoking one’s rights under NLRB v. Weingarten. The invocation of one’s Weingarten rights should be as follows:

  • “If this discussion could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, or affect my personal working conditions, I request that my union representative be present at this meeting.
  • Without representation, I choose not to answer any questions.
  • This is my right under a Supreme Court decision called N.L.R.B. v. Weingarten.”

The Law Offices of Arpaia & Crivelli, L.L.C. has had durable plastic cards constructed that contain a Public Safety Officer’s Weingarten Rights. These cards are the exact size of a credit card and should be carried in the wallet or billfold of every New Jersey Public Safety Officer at all times. These cards are free of charge to any Public Safety Officer that would like to ensure that they are protecting their rights. You can obtain a card for yourself or your entire department by calling 609-890-1900. Take advantage of this offer. There are not too many things that are free any longer in today’s world.

Weingarten 101: Recognizing an Investigatory Interview and When to Exercise Your Rights

This particular post was drafted by Michael P. DeRose. As stated in a previous post, Michael is a paralegal employed with the Law Offices of Arpaia & Crivelli, L.L.C. Michael will be leaving the office in August, 2008, for purposes of attending Law School in Michigan. While we are very sad to see him leave, we are excited that he has the opportunity to further his education and pursue his dream of becoming attorney. We look forward to his return as a law clerk in the summer of 2009, and truly wish him the very best in law school. 

This is the first of two posts centered on the case of NLRB v. Weingarten, 420 U.S. 251 (1975).

The brave men and women who comprise the long list of New Jersey Public Safety Officers should maintain a solid foundation of knowledge in regard to the rights they possess within the institutions where they are employed. As such, a brief discussion of Weingarten Rights is in order.

The United States’ Supreme Court case known as NLRB v. Weingarten solidified the notion that unionized employees possess the right to obtain union representation during investigatory interviews. This principle applies to both private employee collective bargaining units and public employee collective bargaining units. “Investigatory interviews” as defined under Weingarten can pertain to criminal issues or departmental matters which may lead to discipline. However the invocation of Weingarten rights only applies to investigatory interviews conducted by a supervising authority within the organization where the subject of the interview is employed.  

In particular to Public Safety Officers, investigatory interviews are regularly conducted by agents of an Internal Affairs Department or the Special Investigations Division of their respective organizations. Simply stated, an investigatory interview occurs when a supervising or investigatory authority questions a subordinate to obtain information which could be used as a basis for discipline. The supervising authority is also engaged in conducting an investigatory interview when they ask a subordinate to defend his or her conduct in a formal setting. Weingarten rights only apply to NJ Public Safety Officers who face the possibility of undergoing an investigatory interview.

It is both necessary and essential for law enforcement personnel and first responders to detect when a potential interview qualifies as “investigatory.” An important question to ask one’s self when uncertain of whether the interview is “investigatory” is: “could this interview or its fruits possibly lead to disciplinary action?” If the Public Safety Officer being questioned reasonably believes that the answer to this question is yes, he or she is entitled to have union representation present at the meeting before a question is posed. Also, it is important to note that the supervising authority conducting the investigatory interview is not compelled to advise the subject of his or her Weingarten rights. This is a common misconception that merits mention. It is the responsibility of the Public Safety Officer being questioned to invoke Weingarten to ensure representation is present during the investigatory interview. In the next post we will discuss Weingarten in more detail, and the effect of invoking the rights during an investigatory interview.  

"45 Days" to Discipline as Defined Under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 Only Applies to Internal Rules and Regulations

In the world of Public Employee Discipline as it pertains to New Jersey municipal police officers, we often turn to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147, or more commonly referred to as the “45 day rule", in ensuring that municipalities act within a reasonable time frame in bringing disciplinary charges against public safety officers. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Guidelines provide that pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147, disciplinary charges alleging a violation of the agency’s rules and regulations must be filed within 45 days of the date the person filing the charge obtained sufficient information to file the charge. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 states that, a “Complaint charging a violation of the internal rules and regulations… shall be filed no later than the 45th day after the date on which person filing the complaint obtained sufficient information to file the matter upon which the complaint is based.”

Many municipalities, police departments, and collective bargaining units have interpreted N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 as being applicable to all disciplinary charges and alleged misconduct whether the same violated internal rules, regulations, or procedures or in the alternative fell under misconduct as defined under Title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code, or 2C criminal misconduct. However, the world of police discipline as we used to understanding it no longer exists. The Appellate division has clarified N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147.

In the case of McElwee v. Borough of Fieldsboro, A-1230-06T3, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division opined that N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147’s time limit for bringing disciplinary charges against an employee does not apply when the charges are based on misconduct grounded in title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code, nor 2C of the New Jersey Criminal Code. Thus, municipalities may take their time in charging alleged misconduct and do not have to adhere to the “45 day” rule so long as the alleged misconduct is grounded in title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code or 2C of the New Jersey Criminal Code.

It appears that the only way collective bargaining units can now broaden the scope of N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 is to include a contractual clause in collective bargaining agreements that places time restraints on “all disciplinary charges”. The bottom line is that the protection New Jersey municipal police officers once enjoyed under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 is not as broadly defined as it used to be.