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.