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.
On January 25, 2007, Caruso attended a meeting at the Department, at which time he was served with the notice of discipline and preliminarily suspended. On February 12, 2007, Caruso was terminated pursuant to a final notice of disciplinary action.
Caruso appealed to the Merit System Board, which referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in August 2007. The ALJ’s initial decision upheld Caruso’ removal, sustaining three of the four charges in the City’s notice of discipline. The Board adopted the ALJ’s decision and upheld the termination. This appeal ensued.
On appeal, Caruso argued the Board’s decision “was not based on credible evidence in the record and was not consistent with case law” and that the termination was an excessive penalty. The Appellate Division disagreed. The Court upheld the Board’s decision in its entirety, including Caruso’s termination. Specifically, the Court noted the City complied with certain requirements delineated in the case law and previous decisions when it permitted Caruso to take the leave of absence for the Carrier Clinic. In addition, the Court noted that there was no basis to overturn the City’s decision that termination was an appropriate penalty.
The case illustrates the importance of a New Jersey public safety officer being cognizant of the policies and procedures of his/her department in the event a leave of absence is necessitated by substance abuse. In the event the requisite policies and procedures are not adhered to, missing time from employment could lead to the imposition of disciplinary charges and possible termination from employment.