In the Matter of Martinez, A-0090-07T2, the Appellate Division held a civil service appointing authority violates the Rule of Three, N.J.S.A. 11A:4-8, in guaranteeing a promotional candidate that he or she will receive the appointment if he or she attains the highest score on the examination.
After taking the civil service examination for promotion to deputy fire chief on March 30, 2006, appellant Kenneth Martinez, a fire captain in Passaic, was ranked first among the eligible nonveterans. A promotional list listing Martinez first was promulgated by the State Department of Personnel on June 22, 2006. However, the City was separately arranging for another candidate, Captain Christopher Szczygiel, to receive the promotion. The City had previously bypassed Szczygiel and appointed lower-ranked individuals to the rank of captain, causing Szczygiel to file an administrative appeal before the Merit System Board, as well as a civil action in the Law Division.
A settlement of Szczygiel’s litigation was attained and on January 31, 2007, the Board issued a final decision approving the proposed settlement terms that the parties had disclosed it. Although it was not disclosed to the Board at the time, the settlement terms would allow Szczygiel to compete for the deputy chief position. In fact, the settlement guaranteed Szczygiel appointment to deputy chief, so long as his exam grade proved to be higher than that of anyone else who sat for the exam.
Following the Board’s approval of the settlement, the Department of Personnel graded Szczygiel’s exam and determined that he had the highest score. It then generated a new promotional list for deputy chief ranking Szczygiel first and Martinez second. Thereafter, the City appointed Szczygiel deputy chief on April 1, 2007.
Martinez filed an administrative appeal, contending that the Board’s ratification of the settlement, and the City’s actions in guaranteeing Szczygiel the appointment, violated the longstanding “Rule of Three” principle of New Jersey Civil Service Law, as well as the merit and fitness clause of the state constitution. On July 27, 2007, the Board rejected Martinez’s challenge and this appeal followed.
On appeal, Judge Sabatino opined that the guarantee in the Szczygiel was troublesome because it provided that Szczygiel would receive the promotion to deputy chief so long as he scored first on the promotional exam. The Board was not informed of the guarantee prior to its January 31, 2007 approval, final determination of Martinez’s appeal, nor was the guarantee disclosed to Martinez, who had every right to expect that the normal selection processes under the Rule of Three would be observed.
In addition, the Court stated it is doubtful that the Legislature wished to allow municipalities to dispense with the Rule of Three and reach agreements with applicants guaranteeing them a position if they scored high enough on an exam. Such individualized guarantees run contrary to the objectives of the civil service system and also deviate from the Rule of Three’s aim to include “other merit criteria” in the selection process.
This decision reinforces the importance for an appointing authority to follow the requisite procedures in granting promotions. The Rule of Three, much like other required procedures, cannot be usurped in favor of settlement agreements which undermine the goals of the Civil Service System, namely a fair and objective selection process based on merit and other criteria.