Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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William Hendrickson, Jr. worked as a fire safety inspector with the Department of Community Affairs. While on duty, he uttered an obscene and belittling remark about a female supervisor overheard by two of his colleagues. The DCA brought three disciplinary charges against Hendrickson. In September 2014, after a departmental hearing on the disciplinary charges, the DCA issued an order terminating Hendrickson’s employment. The ALJ held that Hendrickson uttered a gender slur in a workplace environment and therefore violated the State’s policy prohibiting gender discrimination and engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee. Although the ALJ was troubled by Hendrickson’s failure to acknowledge his wrongdoing, she reasoned that removal was “too harsh” a punishment given Hendrickson’s lack of a disciplinary record in the fifteen months before and nine months after the incident. She instead ordered Hendrickson suspended for six months. The ALJ forwarded the decision to the Civil Service Commission, and both parties filed exceptions. Hendrickson argued that the discipline was too severe, and the DCA argued that termination was the appropriate punishment. Failing to reach a quorum, the ALJ's decision was deemed adopted by the Civil Service Commission. The Appellate Division reversed the ALJ’s decision and reinstated the DCA’s termination of Hendrickson’s employment, acknowledging the ALJ’s decision “was 'deemed-adopted’ as the Commission’s final decision. Nevertheless, the panel held that because the vacancies on the Commission disabled it from forming a quorum and acting, “the deemed-adopted statute does not require traditional deferential appellate review of the ALJ’s decision.” The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Appellate Division erred in suggesting appellate review of a disciplinary sanction imposed by a judge was de novo and different from traditional appellate review of an agency determination. Consequently, and based on a deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court could not conclude the ALJ's decision was shocking to a sense of fairness, and affirmed the ALJ's decision. View "In the Matter of William R. Hendrickson, Jr., Department of Community Affairs" on Justia Law

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At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was two determinations of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer’s claim that he was “mentally . . . incapacitated” by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). In Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Board and the Appellate Division panel rejected Officer Christopher Mount’s claim that he was permanently disabled because he witnessed at close range the incineration of three young victims in an explosion after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. The Supreme Court held Mount had proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that met the standard of Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division panel’s judgment and remanded to the panel to decide Mount’s claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident. In Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Supreme Court considered the Division’s decision reversing the Board’s denial of accidental disability benefits to Detective Gerardo Martinez, a municipal police department’s hostage negotiator. Martinez claimed that his permanent disability resulted from psychological injuries sustained when a lengthy hostage negotiation ended with the shooting death of the hostage-taker, as he and Martinez spoke by cellphone. The Supreme Court held Martinez did not demonstrate the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected under the Richardson test, and therefore he was not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. View "Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jaclyn Thompson alleged that she was mentally disabled as a result of three incidents at work. Petitioner was a health and physical education teacher. She taught regular gym classes, coached, and served as an advisor and mentor. She also taught gym classes specifically geared toward students with disabilities. During three of petitioner’s classes, students punched, slapped, or pushed her. Petitioner sustained no physical injuries in the three incidents, and she required no medical treatment. Petitioner filed a request for accidental disability retirement benefits based on the three incidents. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denied her request for accidental disability benefits but found petitioner qualified for a deferred retirement. Petitioner argued she met the requirement for mental disability because the incidents involved physical contact. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found petitioner did not meet the standard for accidental disability benefits. However, the ALJ granted her ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ found that she suffered from PTSD, that medication was ineffective at abating her symptoms, and that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regularly assigned duties. Petitioner appealed the denial of accidental disability benefits. The Board affirmed the ALJ. Petitioner then appealed to the Appellate Division. The majority of the panel affirmed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "Thompson v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved the collective negotiations agreements CNAs between: (1) Atlantic County and the Fraternal Order of Police, Atlantic Lodge #34 (FOP Lodge 34); (2) Atlantic County and the Atlantic County Prosecutor s Office, P.B.A. Local #77 (PBA Local 77); and (3) Bridgewater Township and the Policemen s Benevolent Association, Local #174 (PBA Local 174). Atlantic County informed FOP Lodge 34 and PBA Local 77 that when their respective CNAs expired the County would no longer implement the incremental salary scheme provided for in those contracts. Both unions filed charges with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC or the Commission), claiming that Atlantic County had engaged in an unfair labor practice, contrary to the Employer-Employee Relations Act (EERA). The hearing examiner agreed with the unions and found that Atlantic County's departure from the dynamic status quo, in this case, the refusal to pay automatic increments, constituted a unilateral change in a mandatory subject of negotiations in violation of the [EERA]. Atlantic County petitioned PERC for review, and the Commission came to the opposite conclusion. All three unions appealed. The Appellate Division consolidated the cases and reversed the Commission. The New Jersey Supreme Court did not determine whether, as a general rule, an employer must maintain the status quo while negotiating a successor agreement. In these cases, the governing contract language required that the terms and conditions of the respective agreements, including the salary step increases, remain in place until a new CNA is reached. Therefore, the judgment of the Appellate Division was affirmed on other grounds. View "In the Matter of Atlantic County" on Justia Law

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The Washington Township Education Association was the major union representative for employees of the Robbinsville Township Board of Education. Relevant to the events in this matter, the Board and the Association were bound by a collective negotiation agreement during the period of July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2011. According to Article 5.3 of the Agreement, the teachers salaries were based on the number of school-year work days, which contract negotiations established to be 188 days for new teachers and 185 days for all other teachers. On March 17, 2010, during a time of declared fiscal emergency, the State notified the Board that State education funding to the district would be reduced by fifty-eight percent for the upcoming 2010-2011 school year. Reeling from that significant funding reduction, the Board took action: it revised its budget for the next school year by cutting educational programs, freezing salaries, and laying off approximately thirteen teaching and staff positions. Because those attempts were insufficient to balance the school district's budget, on March 19, 2010, the Board asked the Association to re-open contract negotiations for the 2010-2011 school year. The Association, citing its members best interests, declined to re-open discussions mid-contract. The Association also did not respond to the Board s subsequent request on April 13 to reconsider re-opening negotiations. The Board announced a decision to impose involuntary furlough days on teachers, knowing that the furloughed days would impact the affected employees' wages. An unfair labor charge was filed with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). The Appellate Division granted summary judgment in favor of the Board. But the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the Appellate Division's decision was based on an overly broad and mistaken reading of the controlling case-law for this matter. View "In the Matter of Robbinsville Twp. Bd. of Education v. Washington Township Education Assn." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas were brothers who were employees of defendant Wentworth Property Management Corporation (Wentworth). In May 2005, Michael Mendillo, president and chief executive officer of Wentworth, hired Ramon to serve as a regional vice president; months later, Wentworth hired Jeffrey as a portfolio manager. Jeffrey was promoted to executive director in July 2007. In the new position, Jeffrey reported directly to defendant Arthur Bartikofsky, Wentworth's executive vice president of operations. Ramon also reported to Bartikofsky. Plaintiffs claimed that they encountered racial discrimination and a hostile work environment while under Bartikofsky's supervision. Many of the degrading remarks directed at Ramon occurred at senior executive meetings, where Mendillo, Bartikofsky, Alan Trachtenberg (in-house counsel), other executives, and regional vice presidents were present. Jeffrey corroborated most of his brother's account. When Jeffrey complained to Trachtenberg, he replied that Jeffrey should calm down and that the remarks should not be taken so seriously. Within the next month, both Ramon and Jeffrey were terminated. Plaintiffs filed an action under New Jersey s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) claiming that they were victims of race-based discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliatory firings. Ramon also claimed that Wentworth failed to promote him based on his race. In its defense, Wentworth contended that plaintiffs were terminated for poor work performance. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict against defendants on all claims other than Ramon's failure-to-promote claim. The jury awarded overall damages in the amount of $2.5 million to the two brothers, including $800,000 in emotional-distress damages to Ramon and $600,000 in emotional-distress damages to Jeffrey. The trial court rejected defendants post-trial motions to vacate the jury's verdict and the damages award. In particular, the court denied defendants motion for a remittitur of the emotional-distress damages. In doing so, the court distinguished the comparable cases and verdicts selected by defendants. In the court's view, the award fell far short of one that would be shocking to the conscience. The trial judge also stated that she would refrain from applying her own feel for the case under "He v. Miller," (207 N.J.230 (2011)). The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed too. View "Cuevas v. Wentworth Group" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Tonique Griffin, Virginia Best and Rosalyn Walker, employees of the City of East Orange, alleged that they were sexually harassed by a supervisor. In the wake of plaintiffs' internal reports of the alleged harassment, the City retained an attorney to conduct an investigation of their claims. Corletta Hicks an aide to the City's then-Mayor, Robert Bowser, and a close friend of Griffin, made statements to the investigator that undermined Griffin's allegations and supported the credibility of the alleged harasser. The investigator relied in part on Hicks's statements in rejecting plaintiffs' contention that, by virtue of the supervisor's harassment, they were subjected to a hostile work environment. Plaintiffs filed complaints under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), alleging hostile work environment sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and retaliation, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. During discovery, Hicks testified at her deposition that Mayor Bowser spoke with her before she was interviewed by the investigator, directing her to make negative comments about Griffin and to praise the supervisor accused of harassment, and that pursuant to his instructions, she provided the investigator with misleading information. The trial court barred Hicks from testifying at trial on the ground that her proposed testimony was irrelevant to plaintiffs' claims. The court granted a directed verdict dismissing some of plaintiffs' claims, and the jury rejected the remaining claims. An Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court's judgment. After its review, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred when it barred plaintiffs from presenting Hicks' testimony to the jury. Mayor Bowser's alleged instructions to Hicks were directly pertinent to plaintiffs' claims for compensatory and punitive damages arising from hostile work environment sexual harassment, and therefore met the relevancy standard of N.J.R.E. 401. The hearsay statements attributed to Mayor Bowser constituted statements by a party's agent or servant offered against the party, and were thus within the exception to the hearsay rule prescribed by N.J.R.E. 803(b)(4). The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division's judgment affirming the dismissal of plaintiffs' claims for hostile work environment sexual harassment, and remanded the matter to the trial court for a new trial on those claims. We affirm the Appellate Division's judgment with respect to plaintiffs remaining claims. View "Griffin v. City of East Orange" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Robert Smith was a certified emergency medical technician and paramedic associated with defendant Millville Rescue Squad (MRS), which provided medical transportation and rescue services. Plaintiff started off as a volunteer, but assumed a paid position in January 1996. At the time of his termination in February 2006, plaintiff served as Director of Operations until June 1998. Plaintiff s direct supervisor was co-defendant John Redden, MRS's Chief Executive Officer. Plaintiff's wife at the time, Mary, was also employed by MRS, as were her mother and two sisters. In early 2005, plaintiff commenced an extramarital affair with an MRS volunteer, who was supervised directly by plaintiff. In June 2005, Mary learned of plaintiff's affair and reported it to Redden. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff informed Redden of the affair. The MRS volunteer left MRS in 2005, but the affair continued, leading to irreconcilable discord between plaintiff and Mary. On January 1, 2006, plaintiff moved out of the marital home. On January 2, 2006, plaintiff informed Redden that his marriage to Mary had collapsed. According to plaintiff's testimony, Redden thanked plaintiff for keeping him informed and asked to be notified of any developments regarding his marital status. When informed that plaintiff would divorce, he was terminated. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review addressed the scope of the marital status protection afforded to employees by the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). After review, the Court held that the LAD protected all employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from a spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings, or have obtained a divorce from discrimination in the workplace. Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the employer harbored discriminatory animus against divorcing employees and that this animus bore directly on the decision to terminate plaintiff s employment. The trial court therefore erred when it dismissed the complaint at the close of plaintiff's case. View "Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad" on Justia Law

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The issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court in this case was whether the 2011 suspension of State pension cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) contravened a term of the contract right granted under the earlier enacted non-forfeitable right statute, L.1997, c.113 (codified as N.J.S.A.43:3C-9.5). Qualifying members of the State's public pension systems or funds were granted a non-forfeitable right to receive benefits as provided under the laws governing the retirement system or fund. By codifying that non-forfeitable right to receive benefits, the Legislature provided that the benefits program, for any employee for whom the right has attached, could not be reduced. Whether COLAs were part of the benefits program protected by N.J.S.A. 43:3C-9.5 depended on whether the Legislature, in enacting N.J.S.A. 43:3C-9.5(a) and (b), intended to create a contractual right to COLAs. The Supreme Court found in this instance, proof of unequivocal intent to create a non-forfeitable right to yet-unreceived COLAs was lacking. Although both plaintiff retirees and the State advanced plausible arguments on that question, "the lack of such unmistakable legislative intent dooms plaintiffs' position." The Court concluded that the Legislature retained its inherent sovereign right to act in its best judgment of the public interest and to pass legislation suspending further COLAs. Having determined that there was no contract violation, and because the additional arguments advanced by plaintiffs were not meritorious, the Court reversed the Appellate Division's judgment holding to the contrary. View "Berg v. Christie" on Justia Law

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The issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was a narrow one of appellate jurisdiction of an agency decision and the appropriate response by an appellate tribunal when it encounters on its calendar an interlocutory order from which leave to appeal was neither sought nor granted. A school principal was returned to teaching due to a reduction-in-force (RIF), which included elimination of all vice-principal positions throughout the school district. The principal filed a petition with the Commissioner of Education to establish her tenure and seniority rights as a vice-principal. Her employer, the Board of Education of the City of Elizabeth, challenged the validity of her principal certification, which challenge, if successful, affected her tenure and seniority rights. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) adopted the Elizabeth Board's position, but the Commissioner rejected the Initial Decision and remanded the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for calculation of the principal's tenure and seniority rights. The ALJ complied, the Commissioner adopted the Initial Decision, and the Elizabeth Board appealed. The Appellate Division held that the Commissioner's first decision was a final order from which the Elizabeth Board could have filed an appeal as of right. Having failed to do so, the panel concluded that the Elizabeth Board waived its right to appeal the Commissioner's first decision. The appellate panel raised the issue of the timeliness of the appeal sua sponte and determined that the Commissioner's first decision rejecting the ALJ s Initial Decision was a final order from which the employer should have taken an appeal. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the Commissioner's order became a final decision from which an appeal could be filed as of right only when the Commissioner adopted the decision of the ALJ following the remand proceedings. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Silviera-Francisco v. Bd. of Education of the City of Elizabeth" on Justia Law