Articles Tagged with New Jersey Civil Service Discipline

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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 Newpolice-hoboken-train-station Jersey civil service law enforcement officer.

Background

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.

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As we have explained here before, the New Jersey Civil Service appeal process gives civil service employees a meaningful avenue for appealing discipline imposed by their government employers.  However, a recent appellate opinion is a good reminder that this meaningful avenue for appeal is a two-way street.police-1714956__340-300x200

The New Jersey Civil Service Appeal Process

When a governmental employer wants to discipline employees with civil service protections, it must first give them a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (a “PNDA”) listing the charges and specifications against them.  Employee then have the right to elect to have a hearing, and whether they do nor not, when final discipline is imposed, the employer must then give the employee a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action (an “FNDA”).  For major discipline (a fine or suspension of more than five days, or termination), the employee has 20 days to file an appeal.

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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.

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New Jersey employment law provides that government employees may be fired for conviction of a crime, and for many crimes they must be fired.  However, if they are exonerated they may be reinstated to their position.  They may be subject to further discipline, but if they are not they may also receive back pay, police-hoboken-train-stationseniority and benefits for the period of their suspension.

Suspension During Criminal Charges

New Jersey Civil Service Commission regulations provide that an employee’s conviction of a crime is grounds for discipline.  An employee suspended while a criminal complaint or indictment is pending must be served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (known as a “PNDA”). The PNDA should include a statement that forfeiture of the employee’s position may result, and that the employee may choose to consult with an attorney.  In this case representation by an attorney is always advisable.  Within five days of receipt of the PNDA, the employee may request a departmental hearing. If no request is made (within five days or an agreed upon extension) the employer may issue a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action (an “FNDA”).

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Discipline is a major component of New Jersey’s Civil Service system.  Discipline under New Jersey Civil Service law is either “major” or “minor.”

Major Discipline

The main procedural consequence of the difference major discipline and minor discipline is that major discipline can be appealed to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, while minor discipline can only be challenged in the Superior Court of New Jersey.  Major discipline is civil-servcie-1800s-300x165defined as a suspension or fine of more than five days.  Major discipline includes removal, disciplinary demotion, and suspension or fine for more than five working days.  The touchstone for all civil service disciplinary procedures, however, is that “The theme of fairness threads its way through the notice, hearing, and right of appeal provisions of our Civil Service Act, and finds particular pertinence in those sections requiring that the causes for [discipline, including] removal constituting ‘just cause’ be enumerated with specificity.”

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disciplinary-1326277__340-300x300New Jersey’s government employees provide a wide range of services without which the public could not survive. These range from law enforcement to firefighting, mass transit, garbage removal, building and maintaining roads, ensuring the safety of buildings, protecting the civil rights of New Jersey’s citizens, protecting the environment, traffic safety, urban planning, parks, agriculture, guarding inmates, the list goes on – in short, they affect virtually every aspect of our lives.

Our employment attorneys regularly represent New Jersey civil servants defending themselves against discipline imposed their governmental employers. This is a brief overview of discipline and appeals procedures under New Jersey’s Civil Service System.

Background

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Our employment law attorneys represent public employees in all phases of their employer-employee relationship.  We regularly represent civil service employees in appealing the imposition of discipline.  One of the bedrock principles of New Jersey civil service employment law is the concept of “progressive discipline.”

Background

New Jersey has a long history of government employment decisions being made for political reasons – this is, after all, the state of Frank “I Am The Law” Hague.  That is why New Jersey Legislature established the civil service system in 1908 to remove political influence, favoritism, cronyism and nepotism from decision making in the hiring, firing and discipline of New Jersey government employees.  Today, the Civil Service Act and the regulations adopted by the Civil Service govern hiring for employees of the State of New Jersey, twenty of New Jersey’s twenty one counties, and many of its municipalities, boards and commissions.  For the State of New Jersey then, and the local governments which have adopted the civil service system, employee discipline is governed by civil service.

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