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New Jersey Employment Law Decision Examines Procedures for Appealing Discipline of State Troopers

A recent New Jersey employment law decision in the case of Matter of Shyner examined the procedures available to New Jersey State Troopers to appeal employer imposed discipline, and the standards which appellate courts will utilize to review disciplinary decisions by the Superintendent of New Jersey State Police.

 

The Shyner Case.

Dawn Shyner was a lieutenant in the New Jersey State Police.  In 2014 she called 911 because of an altercation with her estranged husband; local police responded.  No charges were filed, nor was a domestic violence restraining order sought.  In accordance with New Jersey State Police protocols, she notified her supervisor and surrendered her weapon.  During that meeting her supervisor told her that he did not believe the incident would result in a domestic violence investigation, although undoubtedly an ordinary internal affairs investigation would ensue.

A domestic violence officer with the Division of State Police’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was assigned to conduct an investigation, although it was delayed by months.  In the meantime, Lieutenant Shyner met with the Division’s doctor, who referred her to a counselor in the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Thereafter she was served with three disciplinary charges, not for the initial incident, but for her conduct thereafter.  The first was for driving a State Police vehicle while on restricted duty (ie., while having surrendered her weapon).  The second was for lying to the investigator when she answered his question that she did not believe that she had been the principal of a domestic violence investigation.  The last was for failing to name other officers who were driving State Police vehicles while on limited duty (she said that this was why she did not believe she was restricted in her authority to use State Police vehicles).  Lieutenant Shyner denied the charges, and the case was transferred as a contested case to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law for a fact-finding hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in accordance with the New Jersey Administrative Procedure Act.

The ALJ conducted a two day trial.  The ALJ issued a decision recommending dismissal of all three charges.  The Acting Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police as the final disciplinary authority could either accept, reject or modify the ALJ’s recommended decision.    He agreed that the first charge, unauthorized use of the vehicle, should be dismissed because of the ALJ’s finding that Lieutenant Shyner had never been notified of the policy.  However, he rejected the ALJ’s other findings, upheld the final two charges, and imposed a forty day suspension.  Lieutenant Shyner appealed the discipline on the two charges the Acting Superintendent upheld to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.

The Appellate Division upheld the ALJ’s finding that the Division had not proved that Lieutenant Shyner lied about believing that she had not been the target of a domestic violence investigation.  The findings were based on her credibility, the testimony of her captain who told her that she probably wouldn’t be the target of a domestic violence investigation, and the evasiveness and lack of credibility based of the OPS investigator who testified that he told her she was the principal in a domestic violence investigation.  The Appellate Division explained that while the courts will normally defer to the agency head (here, the Acting Superintendent), when it comes to the credibility of witnesses, courts will normally defer to the ALJ who saw the witnesses testify and was able to observe their expressions and demeanor, unless the agency head determines that the ALJ’s findings were “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or are not supported by sufficient, competent and credible evidence in the record.”  Because the Acting Superintendent simply ignored the ALJ’s credibility determinations rather than explaining his basis for rejecting them, the Appellate Division rejected the Acting Superintendent’s decision and dismissed that charge.

However, the Appellate Division upheld the charge that Lieutenant Shyner wrongfully refused to identify the officers she alleged had operated vehicles while on restricted duty.  Her main argument was that it would have been a violation of HIPPA privacy regulations.  The Appellate Division rejected her argument.  It found that since the State Police was those officers’ employer and had given them light duty, it would undoubtedly know that and know why.  Thus, there was no justification for violating the State Police regulation that Troopers fully cooperate in Internal Affairs investigations and answer all questions fully and honestly.  It therefore upheld the third charge, and sent the case back to the Acting Superintendent to determine the appropriate level of discipline on the single charge, since her forty day suspension included discipline for the second charge which was dismissed in the appeal.

 

The Takeaways

  • First, there is an appeal route for a New Jersey State Trooper facing employer discipline, a fact-finding trial before an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Law and the Appellate Division of the Superior Court
  • Second, while the Superintendent can reject the ALJ’s findings, appellate courts will not uphold him unless there he had a very good reason to reject the ALJ’s findings of fact.
  • This means that Troopers can get a fair shake when facing disciplinary charges.

 

Contact Us

Our employment attorneys represent New Jersey public servants, particularly New Jersey law enforcement officers, facing employer imposed discipline, and in all sorts of employment disputes with their government employers, including litigation, appeals, arbitration, mediation, department level hearings, and hearings before administrative law judges.  Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form on this page to schedule a consultation with one of our New Jersey employment attorneys.  We can help.

 

 

 

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