Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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The ethical mandate in N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(d), prohibiting planning and zoning board members from hearing cases when cases of personal interest "might reasonably be expected to impair [their] objectivity or independence of judgment," was at the heart of this appeal. The Conte family filed an application to develop three lots in the City of Garfield. The issue raised was whether any members of the Garfield Zoning Board of Adjustment had a disqualifying conflict of interest because of the involvement of certain Conte family members in the Zoning Board proceedings. The Piscitellis objected to the development project and claimed that a conflict of interest barred Zoning Board members who were employed or had immediate family members employed by the Board of Education from hearing the application. The Piscitellis also contended that any members who were patients or who had immediate family members who were patients of the Contes also had a disqualifying conflict. No Zoning Board member disqualified himself or herself on conflict-of-interest grounds. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, namely for the trial court to make findings of whether any Zoning Board member had a disqualifying conflict of interest in hearing the application for site plan approval and variances in this case. View "Piscitelli v. City of Garfield Zoning Board of Adjustment" on Justia Law

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Seventeen-year veteran volunteer firefighter Jennifer Kocanowski was injured in the line of duty. She applied and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether volunteer firefighters had to be employed to be eligible for temporary disability benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. The Appellate Division affirmed the compensation judge’s determination that pre-injury outside employment was a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters, holding that there "first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages." The Supreme Court reversed: "While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s language is unclear, its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act." View "Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater" on Justia Law

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Lieutenant John Kaminskas and Chief Daniel Vaniska, both members of the Union County Police Department, requested defense and indemnification by the Office of the Attorney General in a civil action brought against them for alleged investigatory and prosecutorial misconduct. The Attorney General denied their request on the basis that N.J.S.A. 40A:14-117 imposed such a duty on the county to defend and indemnify its police officers in such matters. The Appellate Division affirmed that decision, and the New Jersey supreme Court affirmed: under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-117 and N.J.S.A. 59:10-4, the Legislature provided that each county -- not the Attorney General -- was responsible for defending and potentially indemnifying its police officers. View "Kaminskas v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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The under review by the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed several actions by the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with regard to property in the Borough of Oakland that is subject to the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (Highlands Act), N.J.S.A. 13:20-1 to -35. N.J. The Supreme Court granted certiorari review only the determination that the property owner -- Bi-County Development Corporation (Bi-County) -- qualified for the exemption allowed under the Highlands Act for the construction of affordable housing projects, N.J.S.A. 13:20-28(a)(17) (Exemption 17). The issue required interpretation of Exemption 17’s language concerning expiration of its safe harbor. The Court agreed with the Appellate Division, and the DEP, that this project could proceed under Exemption 17 because its qualification had not expired. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division substantially for the reasons expressed in the published decision of the panel, adding only that affirmance was based solely on a plain language reading of the Highlands Act that did not incorporate the definition of “final approval” contained in the separate but related Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -163. View "N.J. Highlands Coalition v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection ." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division) brought a guardianship action against R.L.M. and J.J., seeking to terminate their parental rights to their daughter R.A.J. At a case management conference early in the proceeding, J.J. told the court that he did not want an attorney appointed for him. As the conference continued, J.J.’s previously assigned counsel continued to speak on his behalf. At the second case management conference, J.J. left the courtroom before the conference began. At the third conference, J.J. stated that he wanted to retain substitute counsel. The judge noted that J.J.’s assigned counsel would continue to represent him pending any substitution of attorney. J.J. did not retain private counsel. At the final case management conference and the pretrial conference, J.J.’s assigned counsel represented him; J.J. declined to appear. The Court granted J.J.’s petition for certification, in which he claimed only that he was entitled to a new trial by virtue of the trial court’s denial of his request to represent himself. "Although a parent’s decision to appear pro se in this complex and consequential litigation represents poor strategy in all but the rarest case," the New Jersey Supreme Court found N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.4 plainly authorized that parent to proceed unrepresented. "The parent’s right of self-representation, however, is by no means absolute. That right must be exercised in a manner that permits a full and fair adjudication of the dispute and a prompt and equitable permanency determination for the child." In this case, the the Supreme Court found the trial court properly denied J.J.’s "untimely and ambivalent claim." View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M." on Justia Law

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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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In this case, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (Commission) appropriately issued fines and suspensions without holding hearings. The Commission sent notices of proposed suspension to the dealers. The notice also informed the dealers of their right to request a hearing. Each dealer acted pro se and requested a hearing in writing. Each provided explanations for the alleged violations but did not deny the allegations. The Commission denied the requests for hearings and issued an order of suspension/final administrative decision letter to each dealer. The Commission ruled that each dealer had “failed to identify any disputed material fact(s), legal issue(s) and/or specific mitigating circumstances to be resolved at a hearing,” and interpreted the dealers’ responses as admissions. The Appellate Division panel consolidated the appeals and affirmed the Commission’s imposition of suspensions and fines, determining that the Commission could decide cases “without a trial-type hearing when there are no disputed adjudicative facts.” The panel found that the fines challenged by the dealers were authorized by N.J.S.A. 39:10-20, and the Commission could impose fines under the statute on a case-by-case basis. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that if the reasons given by the dealers presented a colorable dispute of facts or at least the presence of mitigating evidence, the Commission was required to provide an in-person hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:10-20. "An in-person hearing must be held prior to a license suspension or revocation when the target of the enforcement action requests it." View "Allstars Auto Group, Inc. v. New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission" on Justia Law

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Quaker Valley Farms, LLC (Quaker Valley) owned approximately 120 acres of deed-restricted farmland in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. As part of New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, the State purchased an easement on the property that prohibited any activity on the property that was detrimental to soil conservation, but permitted the construction of new buildings for agricultural purposes. Quaker Valley excavated and leveled twenty acres of the farm previously used for the production of crops, to erect hoop houses (temporary greenhouses) in which it would grow flowers. In the process, Quaker Valley destroyed the land’s prime quality soil. At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether Quaker Valley’s excavation activities violated its deed of easement and the Agriculture Retention and Development Act (ARDA). The Supreme Court determined Quaker Valley had the right to erect hoop houses, but did not have the authority to permanently damage a wide swath of premier quality soil in doing so. Accordingly, the judgment of the Appellate Division, which overturned the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the State Agriculture Development Committee, was reversed. “Those who own deed-restricted farmland must have well delineated guidelines that will permit them to make informed decisions about the permissible limits of their activities.” View "New Jersey v. Quaker Valley Farms, LLC" on Justia Law

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In January 2014, a General Order was issued under the authority of the Chief of the Barnegat Township Police Department that applied only to that department. The Order instructed officers to record by MVR several categories of incidents. It was undisputed that the MVR recordings at the center of this appeal were made in compliance with the Order. The MVR recordings at issue documented an incident in which police officers pursued and arrested a driver who had allegedly eluded an officer attempting a traffic stop. One officer’s decision to deploy a police dog during the arrest led to internal investigations and criminal charges against the officer. Approximately four months after the driver’s arrest, plaintiff John Paff sought access to the MVR recordings under OPRA and the common law. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO) opposed disclosure. Plaintiff filed a verified complaint and order to show cause, seeking access to the MVR recordings on the basis of OPRA and the common-law right of access. The trial court ordered disclosure of the MVR recordings. A divided Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s determination. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division panel, concurring with the panel’s dissenting judge that the MVR recordings were not “required by law” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, that they constituted criminal investigatory records under that provision, and that they were therefore not subject to disclosure under OPRA. The Supreme Court remanded the matter to the trial court for consideration of plaintiff’s claim of a common-law right of access to the MVR recordings. View "Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutors Office" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a tax lienholder has standing to challenge a planning board’s approval of a land use application for a neighboring property. The Court concluded that, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-4, a tax lienholder who can show that its “right to use, acquire or enjoy property is or may be affected” if the application is granted is an interested party, and therefore may have standing to challenge a planning board’s approval of a land use application. View "Cherokee LCP Land, LLC v. City of Linden Planning Board" on Justia Law