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Appellate Division Rules that New Jersey Civil Service Appeals Must be Decided Based on Independent Fact-Finding by Administrative Law Judge

The State and Federal Constitutions require that when the government takes action against someone that person must receive due process.  For Civil Service employees, that process is the disciplinary appeals process.  Therefore, in the case of In re Smith, Irvington Township, Department of Public Safety, the Appellate Division ruled that an administrative law judge and the Civil Service Commission could not rely on fact findings in a related but separate criminal trial.  This is an copimportant New Jersey employment law decision, because to meet the constitutional requirements of due process and fundamental fairness, the New Jersey Civil Service disciplinary appeals process must give a meaningful hearing to effected civil service employees.

Monique Smith was a career officer with the Irvington Police Department.  On the day that she was promoted to captain, her boyfriend broke up with her by email.  Captain Smith went to his apartment after the ceremony, and followed him when she saw him leaving in his car.  Smith admitted driving over a center island during her drive.  Smith was charged with eight traffic violations for this drive, including leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.  The Department suspended Smith because of the charges.  Based on this incident, Smith was also criminally charged with second degree aggravated assault, fourth degree unlawful possession of a weapon, third degree possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, and fourth degree criminal mischief.  The aggravated assault was dismissed by the State, and the criminal mischief charge was amended to a disorderly persons offense (a misdemeanor). A jury found Captain Smith not guilty of all the charges.  The trial judge also heard the traffic offenses and found Smith guilty of reckless driving.

Prior to the decision, administrative disciplinary charges were filed against Smith for conduct unbecoming a public employee and five other violations stemming from the same conduct.  A departmental disciplinary hearing was held and a six month working day suspension without pay was imposed.  Smith appealed to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.  The Commission referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (the “OAL”) as a contested case.  An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a two day hearing.  The ALJ issued a recommended decision that the charges be upheld but that the penalty be reduced to a ninety day suspension.  The ALJ also recommended that Irvington pay half of Smith’s attorneys fees as she was the prevailing party.  However, the ALJ based her findings not on the evidence produced at the hearing, but rather wholly on the evidence and findings of fact from the criminal trial.  Despite Smith’s exceptions, the Commission adopted the ALJ’s recommended decision, except that the ninety days would be ninety working days and it rejected the award of attorneys fees.

Captain Smith appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.  She argued that the ALJ and Commission should not have based their decision merely on the findings by the criminal judge.  The Appellate Division agreed and reversed the Commission’s order and decision.

The Appellate Division explained that while appellate courts have a limited role in reviewing administrative agency decision, like those of the Civil Service Commission, it will reverse them if the decisions were “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or… not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.”

The ALJ and Commission based their decision to rely on the criminal judge’s findings on the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which essentially bars a court from relitigating an identical issue which has been decided by a prior court of appropriate jurisdiction.  However, the Appellate Division explained, the parties must have had “a full and fair opportunity to litigate [the] issue.”  The criminal judge’s decision was on the issue of reckless driving.  Thus, it did not afford Captain Smith the opportunity to defend against the charge of conduct unbecoming a public employee and the other administrative charges.  Because the issues were not identical in the two cases, the ALJ was required to set forth her own findings of fact based on the evidence produced at the hearing, and the Commission was required to rely on that.  They didn’t, and therefore the Appellate Division reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the Commission so that it could refer it back to the OAL so that the ALJ could determine the issues without reliance on the criminal judge’s findings.

The takeaway here is that the Civil Service disciplinary appeal process must give the public employee a full and fair chance to appeal the charges against her.  The idea is that Civil Service appeals must give meaningful justice to public employees.  Government employers are still governments, and the New Jersey and United States Constitutions require that before the government takes adverse action against one of its employees – including police officers and other government employees – it must give them due process, which includes notice of the charges against them and a full and fair opportunity to defend themselves.  For Civil Service employees that due process is the Civil Service disciplinary appeal procedure.

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