NJ Public Employee Discipline

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 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

Recently, the Public Employment Relations Commission (“PERC”) has proposed temporary rules to implement the provisions of L.2009, c.16. That law allows non-Civil Service law enforcement officers and firefighters who are terminated pursuant to a complaint or charges not involving any alleged violation of criminal law to have the option of having their terminations reviewed by means

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.


Continue Reading Termination of Police Officer Arising from Substance Abuse Upheld

On March 30, 2009, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division decided the case In the Matter of Richard J. Rivera, Docket No. A-3672-07T2. In the case, Richard J. Rivera, a county corrections officer assigned to the Monmouth County Correctional Institute (“MCCI”), appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board suspending him

This blog entry will focus upon our review of certain statutory proposals currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature concerning the pay status of law enforcement officers when appeals of termination are not resolved within 180 days. These proposals are set forth in Assembly Bill Number 3481

Assembly Bill 3481 concerns the suspensions of certain law enforcement officers and firefighters and supplements Title 40A of the New Jersey statutes and specifically amends N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150 and N.J.S.A. 40A:14-22. In essence, the bill allows certain law enforcement officers and firefighters to regain pay status when appeals of termination are not resolved within 180 days.

The first part of the bill provides:

When a law enforcement officer employed by a law enforcement agency…that is subject to the provisions of Title 11A of the New Jersey Statutes is suspended from performing his official duties without pay for a complaint or charges, other than (1) a complaint or charges relating to the subject matter of a pending criminal investigation…whether pre-indictment or post indictment, or (2) when the complaint or charges allege conduct that also would constitute a violation of the criminal laws of this State or any other jurisdiction, and the law enforcement agency employing the officer…seeks to terminate that officer’s…employment for the conduct that was the basis for the officer’s…suspension without pay, a final determination on the officer’s…suspension and termination shall be rendered within 180 calendar days from the date the officer…is suspended without pay.


Continue Reading Legislative Proposal Seeks to Provide Law Enforcement Officers Pay Status When Appeals of Termination Are Not Resolved Within 180 Days

In Division of State Police v. In the Matter of Detective Sergeant First Class Daniel Flaherty, Docket No. A-0257-07T20257-07T2, the Appellate Division addressed the validity and ultimate imposition of disciplinary charges lodged against a Detective Sergeant of the New Jersey State Police. The appeal arose out of disciplinary charges filed by the New Jersey Division of State Police (“Division”) against Detective Sergeant First Class Daniel Flaherty, charging him with: (1) disseminating Division documents without proper authorization; (2) behaving in an official capacity to the personal discredit of a member of the State Police or to the Division; and (3) willfully disobeying a lawful verbal or written order.

The underlying facts of this case were not substantially in dispute. In 2001, Flaherty filed an age discrimination complaint with the New Jersey State Police Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action (“EEO/AA”) intake unit. He alleged that since 1995, the State Police had denied him numerous specialist positions because of his age. The EEO/AA assigned Lieutenant Patrick Reilly to investigate his claim. After two years, in which the allegations still had not been resolved, the EEO/AA replaced Reilly with DSFC Kevin Rowe.

On May 5, 2003, Flaherty filed a New Jersey State Police Reportable Incident Form alleging “culpable inefficiency” against Reilly. Pursuant to a Division policy regarding non-disclosure of confidential internal investigations, the Office of Professional Standards (“OPS”) denied his request to access the file regarding his complaint against Reilly.

The following month, the State Police administratively closed Flaherty’s complaint file against Reilly and transferred the matter to the Attorney General’s EEO/AA section. In a letter dated September 24, 2003, a Senior Deputy Attorney General informed Flaherty that his claim against Reilly could not be substantiated. 

Thereafter, on May 31, 2003, the Division assigned Flaherty to the OPS, which was then called the State Police Internal Affairs Investigation Bureau. Pursuant to Division of Internal Affairs policies and procedures, “[t]he nature and source of internal allegations, the progress of internal affairs investigations, and the resulting materials are confidential information. The contents of internal investigation case files shall be retained in the internal affairs unit and clearly marked as confidential.” Notwithstanding these provisions, internal investigation files can be released in certain enumerated circumstances.  As such, Flaherty executed a confidentiality agreement which provided the dissemination of all confidential information and/or documents.

In a letter dated February 20, 2004, the Department of Law and Public Safety found that Flaherty’s age discrimination claims could not be substantiated. In his appeal to the Department of Personnel, Flaherty questioned the manner in which the State Police and the Attorney General’s office investigated his


Continue Reading Discipline Regading Dissemination of Internal Affairs Documents Upheld