A recent New Jersey employment law decision in the case of In the Matter of Wilfred Guzman, Rockaway Township Police Department, examined what penalties are available against a New Jersey civil service law enforcement officer.
Wilfredo Guzman was a police officer with the Rockaway Township Police Department, a civil service jurisdiction. Guzman was suspended without pay from April 24, 2017, when he was indicted, until June 19, 2019, when he was served with a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action which terminated him. The termination was triggered by Officer Guzman’s guilty pleas to two counts of second degree official misconduct. The Township also fined Officer Guzman the equivalent of 1040 hours worth of pay. Guzman appealed the fine to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (“NJOAL”) – New Jersey employment law allows civil service law enforcement officers to skip appeals to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission requesting that the appeal be considered a contested case, and instead file instead directly with the NJOAL.
A hearing was held in the NJOAL by an administrative law judge (ALJ), who issued a recommended decision that “no matter how troubling the nature of the charges” (and they were very troubling, involving allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor), the fine, which was actually disgorgement of salary paid to Guzman before his suspension, was not one of the forms of discipline allowed by Title 11A of New Jersey Statutes, the New Jersey Civil Service Act. The termination was not at issue, as forfeiture of office was required upon Guzman’s two second degree convictions. The Commission adopted the ALJ’s recommended decision barring the Township from recovering the 1040 hours of back pay. The Township appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.
The Appellate Division upheld the Civil Service Commission’s decision. It explained that while the Civil Service Commission may impose fines on law enforcement officers, the relevant section of the New Jersey Civil Service Act limits that to situations where the office has agreed to the fine. The regulations adopted by the Civil Service Commission provide that:
(c) An appointing authority [ie., the officer’s employer] may only impose a fine as follows:
- As a form of restitution;
- In lieu of a suspension, when the appointing authority establishes that a suspension of the employee would be detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare; or
- Where an employee has agreed to a fine as a disciplinary option.
The Court explained that since the officer was not paid during his suspension, the fine could not be considered a form of restitution. Likewise, because the Township was not the victim of Guzman’s crimes, it could not obtain restitution because it had no damages or losses—there was nothing to restore. It further explained that the fine could more appropriately be called disgorgement of salary already earned, but this was not one of the forms of discipline allowed by the New Jersey Civil Service Act.
In a situation where a New Jersey civil service police officer is convicted of a crime, he may properly be terminated. However, if he was suspended without pay after his conviction and prior to his termination, and the convictions had nothing to do with his job, his employer may not fine him in addition to terminating his employment.
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