As reported by, municipalities hiring from a civil service list have to give a “legitimate” reason for skipping over a candidate in favor of one who placed lower in test ranking, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 4-2 decision reverses a practice that labor experts said had given too much power to hiring authorities who in the past gave vague reasons for bypassing qualified candidates in favor of family members or those with political connections.

The court ruled in the case of Nicholas Foglio, who was skipped over for a firefighter’s position in Ocean City in 2007. In hiring three firefighters that year, the city picked a bartender and a lifeguard over Foglio, an eight-year volunteer fireman and emergency medical technician in several communities, despite his higher ranking on the civil service test.

The city initially cited the other candidates’ better educational background, but Foglio had the relevant firefighter educational experience. The city then said the other candidates performed better in their interviews, but city officials could not produce any notes or a list of standard questions they asked all the candidates. Finally, the city said the other candidates “best met the needs” of the fire department. The Civil Service Commission upheld the city’s finding, saying it was Foglio’s obligation to prove the city had improper motives, such as age or gender discrimination, in selecting others. An appeals court agreed.

However, the Supreme Court said a “boilerplate” reason is insufficient and the city was obligated to provide to the state Department of Personnel a statement of “legitimate” reasons why Foglio was not selected. “In the absence of such reasons, the appointment is presumably in violation of the principles of merit and fitness and it is the city that bears the burden of justifying its actions,” Justice Virginia Long wrote for the majority.

Dissenting Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Helen Hoens said the ruling creates a “new rigidity” in hiring practices where the appointing authorities ought to have some discretion to appoint from the top three candidates.

Ocean City’s solicitor, Dorothy McCrosson, declined to comment on the case. She said many of those officials involved in the selection process in 2007 no longer work for the city. The city now has to decide whether to give Foglio a legitimate reason for why he was skipped or it has to give him a job on the fire department.