New Jersey’s Civil Service System is designed so that government employees are hired based on their merit, not on nepotism, favoritism, cronyism, bribery or political connections. New Jersey’s Civil Service laws and regulations do this by setting up a system where candidates are tested and graded objectively against other applicants. They are then ranked according to their scores and other qualifications, and hired based on their rank. This testing and ranking system is administered by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission (formerly known as the Merit System Board).
One of the areas where merit is most critical is in the selection and hiring of law enforcement officers, given the vast powers and responsibilities our society places on their shoulders. As a result, the hiring process is significantly more intense than for the hiring of other civil service employees. In addition to a written test, there are also physical examinations and intense background screening.
All of these screening criteria can – and must be – objectively reviewed. However, one additional area of the law enforcement screening process can allow an examiner’s subjective bias to creep through into the testing results. This area is the psychological screening for candidates for New Jersey law enforcement jobs. Obviously this is a legitimate and important line of inquiry necessary before giving young men and women weapons and the power to arrest people. However, subjective biases can influence an examiner’s reading of the examination results.
Our attorneys have represented many law enforcement applicants appealing from subjective findings that they are psychologically unfit for the civil service law enforcement positions they have applied for.
Two of our employment attorneys, Robert Chewning and Maurice McLaughlin recently represented K.W., an applicant for a position as an officer with the New Jersey Department of Corrections (because of the nature of these appeals, names are withheld in the decisions). K.W. was examined and psychologically tested by Dr. Guillermo Gallegos of the Institute of Forensic Psychology in Oakland, New Jersey. Dr. Gallegos recommended that K.W. should be disqualified because an alleged history of arrest, being fired, and for a 13 year old road rage incident supposedly rendered him psychologically unfit. Our firm appealed on K.W.’s behalf.
In an appeal from a psychological disqualification from a civil service hiring list, the applicant must be examined by his own psychologist and submit that report to the Civil Service Commission as part of his appeal. K.W. was therefore examined by Dr. John Alyward, who found that K.W. was indeed psychologically fit. Our attorneys argued that based on this report, and mistakes in the report by the Institute of Forensic Psychology, K.W. should be placed back on the hiring list.
The Civil Service Commission referred the matter to its Medical Review Panel. The Panel interviewed K.W. He did not evade their questions or pretend that bad information didn’t exist. However, the panel found that the incidents which actually occurred were minor and long in the past. In recent years K.W. had a successful work history and no negative law enforcement involvement, and in fact no recent negative incidents at all. It also found he had no record at all of mental health issues. It therefore found that K.W. was psychologically fit for the position of correction officer and recommended that he should be placed back on the hiring list.
The Department of Corrections objected. However, rather than being prepared by an attorney for the DOC (normally the Department is represented by a deputy attorney general relying on a doctor’s report), a Dr. Matthew Guller of the Institute of Forensic Psychology – a private psychology practice – prepared the DOC’s opposition. However, our attorneys were able to point to significant problems with this submission, and the Civil Service Commission agreed.
The report said that K.W. had used LSD, when the initial report noted only that many years ago K.W. said he had tried “weed.” The report also referred to a person named “Dr. Chece” as having examined K.W., when actually it had been Dr. Gallegos. IFP’s report also argued that the Medical Review Panel had not considered K.W.’s credibility, even though it had personally questioned him. Finally, the Institute of Forensic Psychology’s report argued that the Commission should reject the Panel’s recommendation because it had not considered a ticket K.W. had received for leaving garbage at the curb without a tag.
The Commission rejected all of the objections in the report of the Institute of Forensic Psychology. It noted that the submission by IFP was improper because the DOC, not IFP, was the party in the appeal, but it went on to consider and reject all of IFP’s arguments anyway. It noted that the Medical Review Panel is independent of both the employer and the applicant, so is in a better position to be objective. Moreover, the Panel considered the raw data IFP had relied on and personally interviewed K.W. Finally, the Civil Service Commission noted that the DOC knew of all these items which IFP had pointed to (the accurate ones, at least). It could have rejected K.W. based on them (subject to K.W.’s right to appeal). However, The DOC chose to hire K.W. anyway. Since it did so and they did not render K.W. psychologically unfit to be a corrections officer, the DOC could not reject him on that basis now.
This was the right result, and we were happy to help K.W., who is an excellent person who wanted to serve his community, state and country. However, we have seen many cases such as this because a psychological exams is not like a true/false or multiple choice test. It is very difficult to remove subjectivity. For instance, we have seen many veterans rejected for law enforcement positions because it is claimed that PTSD from combat renders them psychologically unfit, despite the fact that many dedicated service members continue to serve their country with PTSD, and PTSD should not, in itself, be disqualifying.
The Civil Service appeals process allows for meaningful, impartial review of psychological and medical disqualifications. The Medical Review Panel and the Civil Service Commission do give appellants a fair chance. A law enforcement career offers too many benefits, both from the pride of service and retirement and other employment benefits, to not appeal an incorrect subjective determination.
Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form to schedule a consultation with one of our employment attorneys. We can help.