On August 17, 2009, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Juan Melendez, Docket No.: A-4617-07T1. In the case, Juan Melendez, a Hudson County Corrections Officer, appealed from a final administrative determination of the Merit System Board (“Board”) imposing a fifteen-day suspension for neglect of duty and other sufficient cause warranting discipline.

The Board adopted the initial determination of an Administrative Law Judge on a remand following his first determination that the suspension should only be for three days following Hudson County’s suspension of thirty days. On appeal, Melendez argues that: (1) the decision of the Board upholding the charges is not supported by credible evidence in the record; (2) the penalty of a fifteen day suspension is at odds with the concept of progressive discipline and appellant’s prior disciplinary history; and (3) he is entitled to attorneys’ fees based on having prevailed on all or substantially all of the primary issues.

The testimony before the ALJ revealed that Sgt. Kevin Orlik reported, and testified, that Melendez was asleep at his post in a trailer annexed to the jail on March 19, 2006 when Orlik and other officers arrived to conduct a search of the cells. In his testimony, Orlik testified that when he entered the trailer he “saw Officer Melendez reclined back in a chair with a roll of toilet paper as a pillow or cushion behind his neck,” “his eyes were closed,” and he was “motionless” as he was observed “for approximately a minute to two minutes” until other officers entered the trailer and started to make noise. Melendez testified that he wasn’t sleeping and told that to Orlik when he directed Melendez “to write a report on why [he] was sleeping.” Melendez challenged Orlik’s credibility by noting that his written report omitted details embodied in his testimony.

There was also testimony about the practice of standing when a superior officer enters the room. Melendez did not do so on the night in questions, and testified that it wasn’t a “regular routine” and he generally did not do so. Although the failure to stand was not itself a basis for discipline, it was determined to be relevant to the issue of “attentiveness” at the time, as well as to the ALJ’s finding that the inattentive conduct was a “sufficient cause” for the three-day suspension he initially imposed.

On the remand, despite making credibility determinations against Orlik because of the failure to include certain details in his written report, the ALJ found neglect of duty and “other sufficient cause” for the discipline, and found that “the failure to stand and acknowledge Sgt. Orlik’s when he entered the trailer to constitute being inattentive.”


Continue Reading Suspension of Hudson County Corrections Officer Upheld

On July 23, 2009, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division issued its opinion in the case of James Liik, et al v. New Jersey Department of Personnel/New Jersey Department of Corrections, Docket Number A-4121-06T2.

This particular opinion has widespread implications in regard to pay and seniority of thousands of New Jersey corrections officers presently employed with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

By way of background, in 1997, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey Department of Personnel created and implemented a pilot program which modified training procedures for corrections officer recruits. Prior to the implementation of the pilot program, candidates for employment with the Department of Corrections were hired as employees and assigned the rank of “correction officer recruit” during their period of training and completion of their working test period. During this time, corrections officer recruits received full salary and benefits available for this particular rank. Once the working test period associated with the position of corrections officer trainee was successfully completed, they were then promoted to the position of senior corrections officer. The pilot program eliminated this practice and those individuals seeking employment with the New Jersey Department of Corrections were designated as “students/trainees.”

As a result of this change, they were no longer considered employees of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, but instead received the lesser rank of corrections officer recruit/trainee during the 14-week training period. During this 14-week training period, instead of receiving the regular salary of a corrections officer recruit, they received a $300 weekly stipend. If a recruit trainee successfully completed the prescribed program of training, they then became “employees” of the New Jersey Department of Corrections and received the salary and benefits of a corrections officer recruit. Despite the fact that the program was to last for only a period of one year, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Department of Personnel made the program permanent in 1999. A stipend of $300.00 that was to be paid to student trainees never increased over the following years and a significant financial burden and hardship was placed upon those individuals seeking employment with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.


Continue Reading Correction Officer Recruit Trainee Pilot Demonstration Program Declared Void

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.


Continue Reading Termination of Corrections Officer Reversed