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.

 

The Board remanded the matter to the OAL because the proofs submitted by the County were so illegible and incomplete that it could not make a determination on Brown’s appeal. The Board directed the County to call additional witnesses to authenticate the validity of the documents or provide additional testimony. A second hearing was held via telephone on May 9, 2007, but no additional witnesses and no additional documents were submitted into evidence, although the County did provide more legible copies of the same documents previously submitted.

After the remand hearing, the ALJ found that the documentation submitted established a “reasonable probability that the integrity of the sample had been maintained, and of the validity of the laboratory analyses that appellant’s sample tested positive for marijuana.” However, no one could verify that the test was conducted in accordance with the Attorney General guidelines or that the sample was properly collected, properly labeled, properly shipped and properly tested. Nevertheless, after the Board reviewed the ALJ’s remand decision, it agreed with his findings and recommendation. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, Brown argued that: (1) the Board’s final decision was arbitrary and capricious; (2) the case was entirely based upon hearsay evidence; (3) the documents were entirely hearsay and unreliable on their fact; (4) the Board erred in remanding the matter to the OAL; (5) the chain of custody for the sample was never established; (6) the Attorney General’s drug testing guidelines were not followed; (7) the County’s own drug testing guidelines were not followed; and (8) the County violated his constitutional right to privacy.

The Appellate Division disagreed with the ALJ’s finding after remand that the documents presented by the County satisfied New Jersey Rule of Evidence 803(c)(6). The Court noted that the County’s entire case was based upon incompetent, inadmissible evidence. Even under the relaxed evidentiary standard of an administrative hearing, the testimony and the documentary evidence were so substantially lacking in reliability that they could not support the case against Brown. As a result, the Court determined the Board’s decision was not supported by sufficient, credible evidence in the record. Therefore, the Court reversed and vacated the Board’s final decision.

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Photo of Donald C. Barbati Donald C. Barbati

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues…

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues litigated before the courts and administrative tribunals throughout the State of New Jersey. In addition, Mr. Barbati also routinely represents individuals in various types of public pension appeals, real estate transactions, and general litigation matters. He is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Public Safety Officers Law Blog, a free legal publication designed to keep New Jersey public safety officers up-to-date and informed about legal issues pertinent to their profession. During his years of practice, Mr. Barbati has established a reputation for achieving favorable results for his clients in a cost-efficient manner.

Mr. Barbati has also handled numerous novel legal issues while representing New Jersey Public Safety Officers. Most notably, he served as lead counsel for the Appellants in the published case In re Rodriguez, 423 N.J. Super. 440 (App. Div. 2011). In that case, Mr. Barbati successfully argued on behalf of the Appellants, thereby overturning the Attorney General’s denial of counsel to two prison guards in a civil rights suit arising from an inmate assault. In the process, the Court clarified the standard to be utilized by the Attorney General in assessing whether a public employee is entitled to legal representation and mandated that reliance must be placed on up-to-date information.

Prior to becoming a practicing attorney, Mr. Barbati served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Linda R. Feinberg, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer Vicinage. During his clerkship Mr. Barbati handled numerous complex and novel substantive and procedural issues arising from complaints in lieu of prerogative writs, orders to show cause, and motion practice. These include appeals from decisions by planning and zoning boards and local government bodies, bidding challenges under the Local Public Contract Law, Open Public Records Act requests, the taking of private property under the eminent domain statute, and election law disputes. In addition, Mr. Barbati, as a certified mediator, mediated many small claims disputes in the Special Civil Part.

Mr. Barbati received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, magna cum laude, from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Upon graduating, Mr. Barbati attended Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. In 2007, he received his juris doctorate, magna cum laude, graduating in the top five percent of his class. During law school, Mr. Barbati interned for the Honorable Joseph E. Irenas, Senior United States District Court Judge for the District of New Jersey in Camden, New Jersey, assisting on various constitutional, employment, and Third Circuit Court of Appeals litigation, including numerous civil rights, social security, and immigration cases.