A recent appellate opinion in the case of In the Matter of Ambroise demonstrates that New Jersey civil service employees will receive a fair hearing in appeals with the New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission and appeals courts.
Ambroise was terminated as a senior correctional police officer (SCPO) by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC alleged that Ambroise engaged in oral sex with an inmate at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
The charges resulted from a report by the inmate that Ambroise engaged in a sexual relationship with her, and that Ambroise delivered messages to another inmate for her. The Special Investigations Division of the DOC (SID) took the inmate’s statement and a swab to collect a DNA sample, then interviewed Ambroise. Ambroise tried to exercise his Weingarten rights and requested to have his union representative present, but this request was denied. The interrogation was videotaped. Four officers interrogated Ambroise 110 minutes. He initially denied any contact, but under repeated questioning finally stated that he the inmate kissed him and “he only licked her vagina for a second or two.” Ambroise was then arrested and charged with sexual assault and official misconduct in the second degree. However, he was acquitted by a jury of the charges.
Ambroise’s Appeal to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission
Ambroise appealed his termination to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, which transferred his case to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), where an administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the charges. Four witnesses testified for the DOC; Ambroise testified on his own behalf. Although the inmate gave a video statement, she did not testify at the OAL hearing. Ambroise admitted that the inmate kissed him when he was turned away from her and he failed to report it, and that he delivered a verbal message to another inmate for her, but adamantly denied that he had any sexual relations with the inmate.
The ALJ viewed the entire video of Ambroise’s interrogation. She found that because of the interrogation methods used by the DOC, the “confession” was wholly unreliable and she refused to consider it at all. For instance, the DOC fabricated evidence and promised him a lighter sentence if he confessed, both of which are prohibited techniques. The ALJ also rejected the DOC’s DNA evidence. The DOC introduced samples of DNA from the inmate and Ambroise. However, it did not produce the testimony of the officer who collected the samples or anyone to verify the chain of custody, and thus no one could testify the samples came from the inmate’s body, rather than separately from the inmate and Ambroise.
The ALJ therefore rejected the DOC’s allegations that Ambroise had sex with the inmate. However, she did find that Ambroise delivered the verbal message and failed to report the inmate kissing him. The ALJ found this to be conduct unbecoming. But given that Ambroise had an unblemished disciplinary record she applied progressive discipline and reduced the penalty to a twenty day suspension, ordered Ambroise reinstated, and awarded him back pay. The Civil Service Commission adopted the ALJ’s decision, except that it increased the suspension from twenty days to six months.
The DOC appealed the Civil Service Commission’s decision to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.
The Appellate Division’s Decision
The Appellate Division upheld the Commission’s decision. Under New Jersey employment law, appeals courts defer to the Commission’s decisions unless they are arbitrary, capricious or not supported by credible evidence. Moreover, appeals courts defer to the factual findings of the tribunal that actually had the chance to observe the witnesses testify, in this case the ALJ. It found that both the ALJ and the Civil Service Commission based their examination on the full evidentiary record and made reasoned, thoughtful decisions. The court therefore rejected the DOC’s arguments and upheld the Civil Service Commission’s decision.
The Bottom Line
Appeals to New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission, hearings before an administrative law judge, and appeals to New Jersey’s appeals courts give New Jersey civil service employees a fair hearing. Employee get the opportunity to have their cases heard based on the facts and evidence. In the Amboise case the DOC had a videotaped confession and DNA evidence, and the ALJ still found that the DOC had not proved that the officer had sexual relations with the inmate, the New Jersey Civil Service Commission agreed, and the Appellate Division upheld the decision. It would be difficult to find an employee who got a more fair opportunity to have his case heard.
Call McLaughlin & Nardi, LLC at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form to schedule a consultation with one of our New Jersey employment lawyers. We represent government employees in all aspects of New Jersey employment law, including civil service disciplinary appeals. We can help.