Handlon v. Town of Belleville

Decision Date27 February 1950
Docket NumberNo. A--70,A--70
Citation71 A.2d 624,4 N.J. 99,16 A.L.R.2d 1118
Parties, 16 A.L.R.2d 1118 HANDLON v. TOWN OF BELLEVILLE et al.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Jacob Fox, Newark, argued the cause for appellant.

G. Dixon Speakman, Newark, argued the cause for respondents, (Toner, Speakman & Crowley, Newark, attorneys).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


On April 24, 1947, after a public hearing on notice, the Director of Public Safety of Belleville removed appellant from the 'office' of 'clerk' of the local Recorder's Court for 'neglect of duty, incompetency and inefficiency' in particulars not pertinent to the present inquiry. There was an appeal to the Civil Service Commission; and on July 1st ensuing the action of the local authority was sustained and the appeal dismissed. On the succeeding August 18th, appellant petitioned the Commission for a rehearing of the appeal; and on October 7th following, after hearing, the petition was denied. Two weeks later, the Commission on its own motion, and without a hearing or notice of hearing, 'reconsidered' its prior action, vacated appellant's dismissal from the 'position' in question as 'too severe,' and directed, as a substitute punitive measure deemed 'fully adequate and equitable discipline,' his suspension 'from position and pay, effective April 15, 1947, and continuing to and through October 31, 1947,' and thereupon his restoration to the claimed clerkship 'regardless of any asignment of the duties theretofore performed by him as clerk' of the court 'to any other person under the same name or any other title, as of November 1st, 1947.' Meanwhile, the clerk's functions had been transferred to another municipal servant 'without added compensation;' and compliance with the modified judgment of the Civil Service Commission was refused on the ground that 'there were no duties' for appellant 'to perform as an employee of the Town' and 'no position existed to which he was legally entitled.' Thereupon, on December 22, 1947, an alternative writ of mandamus issued; and the cause came on for hearing before the Appellate Division of the new Superior Court. It was there held that the Civil Service Commission's modification of its original judgment was Coram non judice for failure of notice to the parties in interest and an opportunity to be heard, and also for want of proof of 'fraud, newly discovered evidence or inadvertence.'


Citing the power to modify or amend the penalty conferred upon the Civil Service Commission by ch. 76 of the Session Laws of 1938, as amended by ch. 184 of the Session Laws of 1946, N.J.S.A. 11:2A--1, appellant maintains that the Commission's adverse action in this regard is subject to reconsideration without a hearing on notice. The proposition is untenable.

The Civil Service Commission is a governmental administrative agency whose function in the particular circumstances is quasi-judicial, for it is of the general nature of a judicial act or proceeding, and is therefore conditioned in the mode of its exercise by the fundamental requisites of due process of law. Administrative tribunals are designed to provide in certain areas of governmental service the supervision which could not be effectively exercised either directly through self-executing legislation or by the judicial process. Federal Communications Commission v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, 60 S.Ct. 437, 84 L.Ed. 656 (1939); Morgan v. United States, 304 U.S. 1, 58 S.Ct. 773, 82 L.Ed. 1129 (1937). The specialized service of the administrative tribunal ofttimes partakes of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Humphrey v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 55 S.Ct. 869, 79 L.Ed. 1611 (1935). The courts themselves provide what are essentially administrative processes. 21 Am.Bar Asso.J. 708; 89 U. of Pa. Law Rev. 1052. Where the administrative tribunal's function partakes of the judicial, its exercise is styled 'quasi-judicial,' but it is the exercise of judicial power nonetheless, conditioned upon the observance of the traditional safeguards against arbitrary action--what Chief Justice Hughes had termed 'the rudimentary requirements of fair play.' Morgan v. United States, supra (304 U.S. 1, 58 S.Ct. 775). The prefix 'quasi' is descriptive of the judicial faculty assigned to administrative agencies and public officers not a part of the judiciary. Whether the proceeding in essence is legislative or judicial is determined by the nature of the final act and the character of the process and operation rather than by the general character of the authority itself. Morgan v. United States, 298 U.S. 468, 56 S.Ct. 906, 80 L.Ed. 1288 (1936); Arizona Grocery Co. v. Atchison, T. & S.F.R. Co., 284 U.S. 370, 52 S.Ct. 183, 76 L.Ed. 348 (1932); Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210, 29 S.Ct. 67, 53 L.Ed. 150 (1908).

The power to hear and determine is not peculiar to the judicial function. The mere exercise of judgment and discretion in the performance of an official act is not necessarily the exertion of what is denominated judicial power. State Board of Milk Control v. Newark Milk Co., 118 N.J.Eq. 504, 522, 179 A. 116 (E. & A. 1935); Arizona Grocery Co. v. Atchison T. & S.F.R. Co., supra; Sunshine Anthracite Coal Co. v. Adkins, 310 U.S. 381, 60 S.Ct. 907, 84 L.Ed. 1263 (1940); Opp Cotton Mills., Inc., v. Administrator of Wage & Hour Division, 312 U.S. 126, 61 S.Ct. 524, 85 L.Ed. 624 (1941). A discretion may be judicial on the one hand, or nonjudicial or legislative or executive on the other. 115 A.L.R. 9. The need of our modern complex society for administrative agencies and tribunals endowed with both legislative and judicial functions has given rise to the new classification of 'Administrative Law.' Mulhearn v. Federal Shipbuilding Co., 2 N.J. 356, 66 A.2d 726 (1949). The grouping of the particular function is determined by its essential quality, considered in relation to the historic guaranties against the use of arbitary power. The inquiry is whether the proceeding is one of ordinary administration purely executive in character or a legislative proceeding having special attributes under the statute which call for the observance of procedural due process. The requirement of a 'hearing' has reference to the tradition of judicial proceedings in which evidence is received and weighed by the trier of the facts and the issue determined uninfluenced by extraneous considerations which might not be exceptionable in other fields involving purely executive action. The 'hearing' is 'the hearing of evidence and argument.' Morgan v. United States, 298 U.S. 468, 56 S.Ct. 906, 80 L.Ed. 1288 (1936); Shields v. Utah Idaho Cent. R. Co., 305 U.S. 177, 59 S.Ct. 160, 83 L.Ed. 111 (1938); Pennsylvania R.R. Co. v. New Jersey Aviation Commission, 2 N.J. 64, 65 A.2d 61 (1949). The quality of the act rather than the character of the agency exercising the authority is determinative of the nature of the power and the need for procedural due process. Where the administrative tribunal is under a duty to consider evidence and apply the law to the facts as found, thereby exercising a discretion or judgment judicial in nature on evidentiary facts, the function is ordinarily quasi-judicial and not ministerial. The classification depends upon the nature of the act and the controls placed upon the exercise of the power in the legislative grant. National Dairy Products Co. v. Milk Control Board, 133 N.J.L. 491, 44 A.2d 796 (S.Ct.1945); McFeely v. Board of Pension Commissioners, 1 N.J. 212, 62 A.2d 686 (1948); Sunshine Anthracite Coal Co. v. Adkins, supra; St. Joseph Stock Yards Co. v. United States, 298 U.S. 38, 56 S.Ct. 720, 80 L.Ed. 1033 (1936).

Here, the power exercised is indubitably judicial in nature. The Legislature has so considered it. The statute protects all officers, clerks or employees in the competitive class of the local civil service against removal or discharge except for cause, determined after a hearing by the appointing authority upon notice; and the Civil Service Commission is invested with the power of review of the action of the local authority, at the instance of the person so removed or discharged, exercisable also after a hearing upon notice in the mode characteristic of judicial proceedings. The parties may be represented by counsel; and the Commission 'shall hear witnesses and receive all competent evidence produced and may compel by subpoena the attendance of witnesses and the production of evidence,' and 'shall determine the case upon the evidence presented.' R.S. 11:22--38, 11:22--39, 11:22--40, N.J.S.A.

In analogy to the authority of courts of general jurisdiction at common law, administrative tribunals possess the inherent power of reconsideration of their judicial acts, except as qualified by statute. This function arises by necessary implication to serve the statutory policy. McFeely v. Board of Pension Commissioners, supra. In early times the power was exercisable by the common-law courts 'at any time while the cause' remained 'within the power and under the control of the court, provided the party' had 'not slept on his rights, but * * * embraced the first opportunity he had of presenting his case,' and the court could 'hear the defendant without endangering the rights of the plaintiff as against him.' Kelly v. Bell, 17 N.J.L. 270 (Sup.Ct.1839); Assets Development Co. v. Wall, 97 N.J.L. 468, 119 A. 10 (E. & A. 1922). See, also, Breen Iron Works v. Richardson, 115 N.J.L. 305, 180 A. 192 (Sup.Ct.1935). Out of a natural respect for the finality of judgments, the judicial hand was stayed unless the moving party practiced due diligence. Barring statutory regulation the power may be invoked by administrative agencies to serve the ends of essential justice and the policy of the law. But there must be reasonable diligence. The denial to such tribunals of the authority to correct error and in justice and to revise its judgments for...

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