Henry v. Rahway State Prison

Citation410 A.2d 686,81 N.J. 571
PartiesOtis HENRY, Appellant, v. RAHWAY STATE PRISON, Respondent. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellant, v. Jesus TORRES, Respondent.
Decision Date24 January 1980
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Emery Z. Toth, Perth Amboy, for appellant Otis Henry (Dennis J. Conklin, Metuchen, of counsel and on the brief).

Janice S. Mironov, Deputy Atty. Gen., for appellant New Jersey Dept. of Corrections and respondent Rahway State Prison (John J. Degnan, Atty Gen., attorney; Erminie L. Conley, Asst. Atty. Gen., of counsel; Joseph W. Ferraro, Jr., Deputy Attorney General, on the brief in A-45).

Gerald B. Schenkman, Trenton, for respondent Jesus Torres (Jane B. Terpstra, Director, Legal Aid Society of Mercer County, Trenton, attorney; Richard Dana Krebs, Trenton, of counsel and on the brief).

The opinion of the court was delivered by

POLLOCK, J.

The primary issue on these appeals involves the standard of review to be applied by the Civil Service Commission in appeals De novo from decisions of state or local appointing authorities in disciplinary proceedings against employees.

Jesus Torres and Otis Henry are two employees who were dismissed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections in separate disciplinary proceedings. They assert that, on an appeal De novo, the Commission may conduct a hearing, make independent findings and substitute its judgment for that of the appointing authority.

The Department argues that review of its decisions by the Commission should be restricted to determining whether the Department committed a clear abuse of discretion. The argument is based on the premise that, whatever standard of review might apply to disciplinary proceedings of other agencies, there should be a separate standard of review of employee disciplinary proceedings conducted by law enforcement agencies.

In Henry v. Rahway State Prison, an unreported decision, one part of the Appellate Division accepted the abuse of discretion standard and reversed the Commission's decision that had reduced the penalty from removal to a 90-day suspension. In New Jersey Department of Corrections v. Torres, 164 N.J.Super. 421, 396 A.2d 1150 (1978), another part of the Appellate Division adopted the substituted judgment test and affirmed the Commission's decision that reduced the penalty from removal to a 60-day suspension. We granted certification in Henry, 81 N.J. 56, 404 A.2d 1156 (1979), and Torres, 81 N.J. 64, 404 A.2d 1162 (1979), to determine which standard of review is to be applied by the Commission in appeals De novo from decisions of the Department or other law enforcement agencies in employee disciplinary proceedings. We consider these appeals together because they present divergent holdings on the same issue of law.

The proceedings against Corrections Officer Torres stemmed from a charge that on August 16, 1977, he fell asleep while on guard duty in an elevated enclosed "cage" overlooking the mess hall at Trenton State Prison. The cage is hot and humid in the summer, and the temperature was estimated to be 100 degrees on the day in question. During his five years of employment, Torres had never been disciplined. Nonetheless, the Department found that he was guilty of neglect of duty and ordered his removal. The Commission reduced the penalty to a 60-day suspension.

Senior Corrections Officer Henry was charged with submitting a falsified report of his discovery of marijuana. In his report, Henry stated that he found the marijuana in the weightlifting shack at Rahway State Prison and that he did not know to whom it belonged. In fact, he had found the marijuana on an inmate's bed in the dormitory. The charges against him recited that he had deliberately falsified his report by misstating the place and manner of his discovery and by omitting the name of the inmate. The Department ordered his removal after finding him guilty of neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming a public employee.

The Commission adopted the findings of fact of the hearing examiner and concluded that Henry had acted in good faith. It found that he was not attempting to protect the inmate, but was conducting his own investigation of a scheme to sell marijuana. The Commission found further that Henry had no improper motives and was guilty only of exercising poor judgment. On that basis, the Commission reduced the penalty to a 90-day suspension.

We begin by recognizing that the declaration of the Commission's standard of review is a legislative matter. With reference to review of decisions of state appointing authorities, the Legislature has provided, in part:

The Commission may, when in its judgment the facts warrant it, modify or amend the penalty imposed by the appointing authority or substitute another penalty for that imposed, except that removal from the service shall not be substituted for a lesser penalty. (N.J.S.A. 11:15-6)

The Legislature has granted to the Commission the same power to review decisions of local appointing authorities. N.J.S.A. 11:2A-1.

In analyzing the Department's contention that there is a separate standard of review for law enforcement agencies, we must refer to the evolution of the civil service law. When the law was first enacted in 1908, it did not provide for a hearing or appeal as of right in an employee disciplinary proceeding. L. 1908, C. 156, § 24. The only review was by writ of Certiorari from the Supreme Court to the appointing authority. See Edwards v. Petry, 90 N.J.L. 670, 101 A. 195 (E. & A. 1917). In 1915, the statute was amended to permit a single Supreme Court justice to review dismissals, but not to modify penalties. L. 1915, C. 120.

In 1917, the statute created an appeal De novo to the Commission, which was empowered to disapprove the penalty imposed by the appointing authority. L. 1917, C. 236, § 24. The statute was silent on the power of the Commission to modify the penalty. However, the statute was interpreted to mean that where the appointing authority had committed an abuse of discretion the Commission could modify the penalty although it upheld the finding of guilt. City of Newark v. Civil Service Comm'n, 115 N.J.L. 26, 177 A. 868 (Sup.Ct.1935); See Town of West New York v. Bock, 38 N.J. 500, 517, 186 A.2d 97 (1962).

The Legislature amended the statute in 1930 to allow the Commission to substitute its judgment as to the penalty for that of state appointing authorities. N.J.S.A. 11:15-6. The Legislature extended the substituted judgment rule to county and municipal employees as to suspensions, fines, and demotions in 1938 and as to discharges in 1946. N.J.S.A. 11:2A-1; See Bock, supra, 38 N.J. at 517-518, 186 A.2d 97. By 1946, the civil service law provided that the Commission could redetermine guilt or modify a penalty in an appeal De novo from the decision of a state or local appointing authority.

Bock involved the dismissal of a municipal fireman. The municipality argued that the Commission could not modify the disciplinary action without finding that the municipality had committed a clear abuse of discretion. 38 N.J. at 514, 186 A.2d 97. The Court declared that the Commission was empowered

to redetermine the penalty just as it must redetermine guilt and that this is so even where the only issue may be the propriety of the penalty imposed below. The former rule of the overriding effect of punishment fixed by the appointing authority, absent a clear abuse of discretion no longer lives . . . . (38 N.J. at 519, 186 A.2d at 107)

Bock ruled that the Commission could conduct a De novo review of a disciplinary action taken by an appointing authority, make its own findings, and substitute its judgment as to guilt or innocence or as to the penalty imposed for that of the appointing authority.

Several cases before Bock recognized that the relevant statutes allowed the Commission to substitute its judgment for that of the appointing authority. See Borough of East Paterson v. Department of Civil Service, 47 N.J.Super. 55, 135 A.2d 213 (App.Div.1957) (substitution of 60-day suspension for dismissal of municipal policeman upheld); Dutcher v. Department of Civil Service, 7 N.J.Super. 156, 72 A.2d 393 (App.Div.1950) (substitution of three-month suspension for dismissal of surrogate's clerk upheld). See also Kennedy v. City of Newark, 29 N.J. 178, 148 A.2d 473 (1959) (general discussion in dicta of Commission's power to modify a penalty in disciplinary actions); Rushin v. Board of Child Welfare, 65 N.J.Super. 504, 168 A.2d 238 (App.Div.1961) (Commission's affirmance of dismissal of Board of Child Welfare employee remanded for redetermination of penalty); City of Plainfield v. Simpson, 50 N.J.Super. 250, 141 A.2d 788 (App.Div.1958) (modification of dismissal to five- month suspension reversed as unreasonable).

Another decision before Bock deserves particular attention. City of Newark v. Civil Service Comm'n, supra, was decided after the substituted judgment test was applied to state employees by N.J.S.A. 11:15-6 but before that test was extended to local employees by N.J.S.A. 11:2A-1. The statute then applicable to local employees authorized the Commission to disapprove, but not to modify, a penalty. L. 1917, C. 236, § 24. The Court held that the Commission was powerless to modify the action of a local appointing authority unless the local authority had abused its discretion. The Court stated that the failure of the Legislature to extend the substituted judgment rule to local authorities showed an intent to leave with them broad power to remove and discipline local employees. 115 N.J.L. at 31, 177 A. 868.

The substituted judgment test enunciated in Bock was subsequently applied in Sabia v. City of Elizabeth, 132 N.J.Super. 6, 331 A.2d 620 (App.Div.1975) (Commission increased suspension of municipal police officers from 30 days to six months). See also Prosecutor's Detectives and Investigators Ass'n v. Hudson Cty. Bd. of Freeholders, 130 N.J.Super. 30, 324...

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