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Terminated Firefighter Wins Reinstatement in New Jersey Civil Service Appeal

A recent appellate decision in the case In the Matter of Christopher D’Amico, City of Plainfield Fire Department demonstrated once again that New Jersey civil service employees have an effect means of redress for when they are wrongfully disciplined.

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The D’Amico Case

Christopher D’Amico passed the New Jersey Civil Service test and was hired to be a firefighter by the City of Plainfield, a civil service jurisdiction.  As part of his application, D’Amico was required to prove their residency.  D’Amico submitted several documents, including an insurance card.  He admitted that he modified the card to list his actual residence in Plainfield.  Plainfield’s hiring committee recommended against hiring D’Amico because of the alteration, but the Fire Chief hired him anyway.  D’Amico attended the fire academy.  A citizen questioned several cadets’ residencies.  The concern about D’Amico was determined to be unfounded, but the City reexamined his application.  Even though the address was accurate and the change was known by the City when it hired him – and was admitted by D’Amico – the Director of Public Safety ordered the Chief to terminate D’Amico’s employment.  When D’Amico and two other cadets reported to the Department for their first day of work they were fired, in D’Amico’s case not because of his residence, but because of the alteration.

 

D’Amico appealed to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, which transferred the appeal to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (“OAL”).  An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing with testimony and documentary evidence.  He ruled that D’Amico’s termination was improper because although he had altered the document, the information was accurate.  Thus, the ALJ found that D’Amico might have been lazy, but was not dishonest.  The ALJ issued a decision recommending that the New Jersey Civil Service Commission reinstate D’Amico with back pay.  The Civil Service Commission can accept, reject or modify an  ALJ’s recommended decision.  In this case, even though the City filed objections protesting the ALJ’s recommended decision, the Civil Service Commission adopted it.

The Commission based its decision on multiple factors.  First, the City had been aware of the alteration when it hired D’Amico.  Second, the information was correct, and therefore did not indicate dishonesty.  Third, because D’Amico had only been on the job several hours, it placed the burden of proving the charges on the City.  Fourth, because the ALJ saw the witnesses as they were testifying and could make live credibility determinations, the Civil Service Commission would not substitute its opinion on the facts for the judge’s.  Finally, the main issue was D’Amico’s fitness to be a firefighter, and the Chief testified that D’Amico could have skipped the academy because he had already passed it and was qualified, but chose to go through again to “build comradery with the other cadets hired at the same time,” which led the ALJ to determine that D’Amico did have the “character and morals” required of a firefighter.  For these reasons the Commission ordered D’Amico reinstated with back pay as the ALJ recommended.

The City appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, which upheld the New Jersey Civil Service Commission’s decision.  The Court explained that it normally defers to agencies because an agency, such as the Civil Service Commission, is considered to be the expert in the field, and where it accepted the ALJ’s factfinding and credibility determinations the Court would not replace its decision with the Commission’s, even if the Court might disagree.  The burden is on the party challenging the Commission’s decision, which here was the City, and the Court would not overrule it unless the City proved that the decision was arbitrary or capricious.  Here, the Appellate Division found that the Commission’s decision was solidly based on the facts as brought out by the ALJ, correctly interpreted and applied the law, was reasoned, and was therefore not arbitrary or capricious.

The Appellate Division therefore upheld the order of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission that D’Amico be rehired and given back pay.

 

The Takeaways

This was a short and uncomplicated case, but it illustrates some points worth remembering.

  • First, there are effective routes to appeal civil service discipline. The OAL, New Jersey Civil Service Commission, and courts are not just rubber stamps for employer imposed discipline.
  • Second, in this case D’Amico actually did knowingly submit an altered document. However, the ALJ, Commission and Appellate Division were all able to look through that and see it for what it was (just like the Chief did) – an honest mistake by a dedicated public servant rather than an attempt to deceive anyone, and to fashion the appropriate remedy.
  • Third, even when you are right, proof matters. In this case, D’Amico had some of the best evidence possible – the supporting testimony of the Fire Chief.
  • Finally, had the card been altered to provide false information the result would have been far different. It is extremely unlikely that D’Amico could have won if he changed the card to submit false information.

 

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Our New Jersey employment attorneys represent both public and private employees in all areas of New Jersey employment law, including civil service disciplinary appeals.  Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form on this page.  We can help.

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