Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
Plaintiff Montclair State University (MSU) has attempted to create a third egress from its campus onto a county road. MSU consulted with both the County of Passaic, New Jersey (County) and the City of Clifton (City), ultimately satisfying most of their concerns about the project. When the County failed to respond to MSU’s permit applications, MSU filed this action, seeking a judgment declaring that no permit or local approval was required, or alternatively, an order compelling the County to issue all necessary permits. The trial court denied relief sought. Relying on Rutgers v. Piluso, 60 N.J. 142 (1972), the court reasoned that the parties had to exchange updated traffic studies, consult further, and appear before the local planning boards. Although MSU agreed to make more changes to its plan, the impasse remained. The principal point of contention was the design speed of the campus roadway, which the County and City claimed was unsafe. MSU declined to make the change proposed by the County and the City, relying on its experts’ conclusion that the road’s planned design speed and posted speed would be safe, and that the alternative design was unsafe. The matter returned to the trial court, which dismissed MSU’s complaint because MSU had not returned to the local planning boards to develop the record further. In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held MSU enjoyed a limited immunity but that Rutgers controlled here and prohibits MSU from exercising its power in an “unreasonable fashion.” The panel remanded the matter, instructing that the trial court determine whether MSU had adequately and reasonably consulted with the County and City. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that in circumstances such as were presented here, a judicial finding that the cited public safety concern has been reasonably addressed was a necessary additional requirement before a court could either compel local regulatory action or grant declaratory relief that the planned action is exempt from land use regulation. The appellate court did not specify what record warranted such a finding in every case. “Rather, the trial court should determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether it could make such a finding via a summary proceeding or whether a more fulsome proceeding is necessary.” View "Montclair State University v. County of Passaic" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff Dunbar Homes, Inc., (Dunbar) owns a 276-unit garden apartment complex in the General Business Zone (GB-Zone) of Franklin Township (Township). Dunbar sought approval to develop an additional fifty-five garden apartments, which at that time were a permitted conditional use in the GB-Zone. As such, construction of the additional apartments required submission of an application for site plan approval and a “conditional use special reasons” variance pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(3) ((d)(3) variance). On May 28, 2013, the Township introduced and scheduled a public hearing for an ordinance that eliminated garden apartments as a permitted conditional use in the GB-Zone. The Township adopted the new ordinance on July 16, 2013, and it became effective on August 5, 2013. Eighteen days before it adopted its new ordinance, the Township advised Dunbar of the potential GB-Zone change. The day before the Township adopted its new ordinance, Dunbar submitted an application to the Planning Board for site plan approval and a (d)(3) variance. Two days after the Township’s new zoning ordinance eliminated garden apartments as a conditional use in the GB-Zone, a Township zoning officer emailed Dunbar to indicate that its application was incomplete under the Township’s Zoning and Subdivision Ordinance (Ordinance). The zoning officer provided a list of items “needed for completeness” and instructed Dunbar it would need to apply for a “restricted use special reasons” variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(1) ((d)(1) variance) Since a (d)(3) variance need not meet the stringent standards required for a (d)(1) variance, approval of a (d)(1) variance was less likely. Dunbar appealed the Township’s decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (Board), arguing that the application was “complete” upon submission and was therefore protected by the TOA Rule. Dunbar filed a complaint, asserting that the Board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious or unreasonable. The trial court agreed and reversed the Board, concluding that “there was enough submitted to functionally begin a review” of Dunbar’s application. Thus, the court found that Dunbar was protected by the TOA Rule and could therefore pursue a (d)(3) variance. The Township appealed the trial court’s decision and the Appellate Division reversed. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court: "the plain language of the MLUL defines an 'application for development' as 'the application form and all accompanying documents required by ordinance.' Because Dunbar’s application lacked many of the documents required by the Ordinance, the application was not complete upon submission and does not benefit from the TOA Rule." View "DunbarHomes, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of Franklin Township" on Justia Law

by
At issue in this case were: (1) the extent of Kean University’s (Kean) notice obligations as a public body under the Open Public Meetings Act (the OPMA or the Act), and whether the notice for the personnel exception established in Rice v. Union County Regional High School Board of Education, 155 N.J. Super. 64, 73 (App. Div. 1977) (the Rice notice) applied here; (2) timing parameters for the release of minutes of meetings; and (3) the appropriate remedy if the OPMA was violated in the latter respect in this matter. Kean’s Board of Trustees (the Board), as a public body, is required to annually establish and publish a schedule of its regular meetings. Plaintiff Valera Hascup received a letter from the University President informing her that he would not nominate her for reappointment at the Board’s meeting scheduled for December 6, 2014. On November 29, 2014, the Board published a tentative agenda for the December meeting on the Kean University website, indicating that the Board intended to discuss faculty reappointments during the public meeting. It did not send a Rice notice. On December 18, 2014, co-plaintiff James Castiglione, a Kean professor and President of the Kean Federation of Teachers (KFT), filed an Open Public Records Act request seeking the minutes from the closed sessions of the September 15 and December 6, 2014 meetings. The Appellate Division affirmed the determination that the Board did not make the meeting minutes promptly available, but reversed and vacated a permanent injunction. The New Jersey Supreme Court found there was no obligation to send Rice notices here, where the Board determined from the start to conduct its discussion about faculty reappointments in public session. With respect to the release of meeting minutes, the delay that occurred was unreasonable no matter the excuses advanced by the Board, but the Court modified the Appellate Division’s holding requiring the Board to set a regular meeting schedule. View "Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morell" on Justia Law

by
In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) required disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property. An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts. The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The Supreme Court determined courts were not required to analyze the "Doe" factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists. "A party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy." Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing. "It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property -- including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property -- will remain private. Without a review of the Doe factors, we find that OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction." The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office" on Justia Law

by
The New Jersey State Health Benefits Commission (SHBC) and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission (SEHBC) (collectively, the Commissions) administered the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program (SHBP) and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program (SEHBP), respectively. At issue was the method used by the Commissions to correct erroneously tiered reimbursement rates previously applied to members’ out-of-pocket expenses for out-of-network behavioral health services. In a separate matter involving a single plan member, the tiered reimbursement schedule was determined to have violated N.J.S.A. 52:14-17.46.7, which addressed the calculation of reimbursement rates for out-of-network health benefit services. Following that decision, the Commissions permitted members who paid for out-of-pocket behavioral health services and did not receive a proper reimbursement to obtain retroactive reimbursement for charges incurred between May 2009 and March 2014. The challenge before the New Jersey Supreme Court centered on the reasonableness of the Commissions’ notice to members who may have been affected by the application of the erroneous reimbursement rates. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s holding and remanded the matter to the Commissions for further proceedings. “Significant questions exist concerning the extent of the notice actually provided, either by the Commissions or through their agents to active employees, former employees, and retirees, a hearing is necessary.” View "In the Matter of State and School Employees' Health Benefits Commissions' Implementation of I/M/O Philip Yucht" on Justia Law