Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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When a toxic disaster hits, claimants could seek relief in the form of assistance from the New Jersey Spill Fund by following promulgated claims procedures. In order to resolve disputes over denied Fund monies quickly and fairly, the Fund uses arbitrators and flexible procedures to allow claimants the opportunity to demonstrate that the denial constituted arbitrary and capricious action. Petitioner, US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund, submitted a claim for Spill Fund monies for its multi-lot property located in Bayonne that was affected by storm floodwaters, which allegedly carried petroleum-based toxins. Neighboring properties also affected by the storm’s toxin-laden floodwaters were afforded Spill Fund relief. Following some back and forth with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), petitioner’s claim was denied. After petitioner filed an appeal, two years elapsed between the request for arbitration and the commencement of the arbitration proceeding. The results of the arbitration ended in favor of the Spill Fund, and payment remained denied. The New Jersey Supreme Court expressed "concerns" about the arbitration. "Although we are mindful of the deferential standard of review, flaws in the substantive reasoning of the arbitration decision as well as procedural fairness considerations undermine confidence in the outcome of this arbitration enough to persuade us, in the interest of fairness, to require that a new arbitration be conducted. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this claim for a new proceeding." View "US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Chiofalo, a then-member of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), filed a complaint under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) against his employer and certain supervisors (collectively, defendants). As the Assistant Administrative Officer of Troop B of the NJSP, Chiofalo was required to log documents that came in and out of headquarters and to collect reports from the Troop B commander. Chiofalo alleges he was subjected to adverse employment actions as retaliation for his engagement in protected activity related to two incidents. The first pertained to a claimed refusal to destroy internal NJSP documents. In 2012, a sergeant and a trooper participated in an unsanctioned escort on the Garden State Parkway, for which they later became subjects of internal review. Chiofalo claimed that the second protected activity occurred during an interaction with the Troop B Commander, in which he accused the Commander of not reporting his vacation time. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Chiofalo failed to set forth a prima facie case under CEPA. The court denied the motion. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Chiofalo compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court judgment, stating, with respect to the validity of a CEPA claim under N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c), a plaintiff had to first find and enunciate the specific terms of a statute or regulation, or the clear expression of public policy, which would be violated if the facts as alleged are true. The appellate court concluded that Chiofalo failed to do so and that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on that basis. Specific to the timekeeping claim, the Appellate Division added that Chiofalo’s statement to the Commander “was hardly 'whistleblowing’ as contemplated by CEPA.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in part, finding the trial court did not er in refusing to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on one of plaintiff's two bases for whistleblowing charges. The Court affirmed with respect to the alleged timesheet violation. View "Chiofalo v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Officer Corey Corbo became gravely ill while at home with his girlfriend and colleague, Officer Jessica Garcia. Garcia called 9-1-1 and later admitted that Corbo had ingested cocaine five days earlier. The paramedics rushed Corbo to the hospital, where his laboratory results came back positive for cocaine. Relying on the hospital records, which included the positive lab results, and Garcia’s statement about the cocaine, Union City terminated Corbo’s employment with the UCPD. The Appellate Division reversed the decision removing Corbo from the UCPD, holding that the ALJ erred when she admitted the hospital records into evidence without first requiring the City to lay foundational testimony to satisfy the requirements of the business records hearsay exception. It also held that the City failed to establish the reliability of the lab results or to introduce other competent evidence at the hearing but did not remand for further evidentiary proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court modified the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded matter to the Office of Administrative Law for further proceedings to allow the City the opportunity to demonstrate that the hospital records were admissible as business records, and for the opportunity to present any other theories of admissibility. View "In the Matter of Corey Corbo" on Justia Law

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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