This blog entry will focus upon our review of certain statutory proposals currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature concerning the pay status of law enforcement officers when appeals of termination are not resolved within 180 days. These proposals are set forth in Assembly Bill Number 3481.
Assembly Bill 3481 concerns the suspensions of certain law enforcement officers and firefighters and supplements Title 40A of the New Jersey statutes and specifically amends N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150 and N.J.S.A. 40A:14-22. In essence, the bill allows certain law enforcement officers and firefighters to regain pay status when appeals of termination are not resolved within 180 days.
The first part of the bill provides:
When a law enforcement officer employed by a law enforcement agency…that is subject to the provisions of Title 11A of the New Jersey Statutes is suspended from performing his official duties without pay for a complaint or charges, other than (1) a complaint or charges relating to the subject matter of a pending criminal investigation…whether pre-indictment or post indictment, or (2) when the complaint or charges allege conduct that also would constitute a violation of the criminal laws of this State or any other jurisdiction, and the law enforcement agency employing the officer…seeks to terminate that officer’s…employment for the conduct that was the basis for the officer’s…suspension without pay, a final determination on the officer’s…suspension and termination shall be rendered within 180 calendar days from the date the officer…is suspended without pay.
Should a final determination of the discipline not be rendered within those 180 days, the proposal states that the officer shall, commencing on the 181st calendar day, begin to receive the base salary he/she was being paid at the time of the suspension and shall continue to do so until a final determination on the termination is rendered. Simply put, this addition to the statute would allow officers who are suspended without pay to begin collecting their base pay once again if the appeal of their termination is not resolved within 180 days. It goes without saying that this addition helps to alleviate the problem many officers find themselves in currently, namely being economically starved for an extended amount of time while trying to challenge their removal from employment.
The proposal also instructs how the 180 day period should be calculated. While the 180 day period seems to be a favorable time period for the officers, it is important to note that this time period might be significantly extended and keep an officer without pay for a period much larger than 180 days. For example, time periods such as: (1) the period between an officer’s termination and the date on which his/her appeal is filed; and (2) the days that accrue during a postponement, should an officer have requested one, will not toll the 180 day period. Therefore, it is imperative that New Jersey public safety officers become intimately familiar with the events which can extend the 180 day time frame should this bill be accepted into law. That way, the officers can maximize their resources efficiently so as to ensure the time frame without pay remains as close to the 180 days as possible.
Next, it is important to note that if the Civil Service Commission denies the officer’s appeal, the officer will be required to reimburse his employing agency or department all of the base salary received during the period of the appeal. Put another way, if an officer has been receiving his base salary after the 180 day period expired and he/she ultimately loses, the officer has to pay all the monies he or she has received. Moreover, the proposal provides that if an officer fails to reimburse the employing agency for the payments, the employing agency may obtain a lien for those amounts on any property and income of the officer, including the officer’s pension, sick and vacation leave to which the officer is entitled.
Finally, the bill directs the Director of the Office of Administrative Law to establish a special unit, known as the Law Enforcement and Firefighter Unit, to deal with removal cases. The unit will be made up of Administrative Law Judges who are qualified and experienced in disciplinary matters and cases which fall under the purview of this statute. As a result of the establishment of this unit, the Office of Administrative Law will be better able to adhere to the 180 day time frame which will, potentially, result in quicker resolutions than what is currently being experienced for all parties involved.
Based on our review of these proposals, I am of the opinion that while many of the proposals are favorable to New Jersey public safety officers, the benefits are somewhat misleading. I believe the Legislature in: (1) installing a deadline for resolving cases regarding the termination of an officer; (2) allowing the officer to regain pay status when appeals are not resolved within that deadline; and (3) establishing the Law Enforcement and Firefighter Unit addresses a number of important concerns, namely forcing these types of cases to be resolved in an expedited fashion and allowing officers certain financial alleviation should an appeal persist for an extended amount of time.
However, (1) the various ways in which the 180 day deadline could be significantly extended; (2) the provision providing reimbursement to the employment agency in the event the appeal is unsuccessful; and (3) permitting a lien on an officer’s property to include his/her pension, severely undermines many of the advantages of the bill. Therefore, it is important that, if this bill passes, officers are mindful of what it specifically includes, excludes, and requires by way of affirmative action on the part of the member or association. Our office will keep apprised of the bill’s progression through the Legislature so make sure to check this blog periodically to ascertain any updates.