Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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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

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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

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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

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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

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In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review focused on state action based on, among other grounds, the Religious Aid Clause of Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, specifically its prohibition against the use of public funds “for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” The challenge arose following the Secretary of Higher Education’s (Secretary) determination to award grant monies to a yeshiva and to a theological seminary as part of a state program to subsidize facility and infrastructure projects for higher education institutions. The Appellate Division determined that prior case law concerning the New Jersey Constitution’s Religious Aid Clause required invalidation of the grants to the yeshiva and theological seminary. The State maintained the proper constitutional analysis in this matter turned on the use to which these higher education institutions would put the monies, not the nature of the institutions themselves. The Supreme Court determined judicial review was premature because factual disputes required resolution before the Secretary could make a properly informed decision on the grant applications. Because an informed administrative decision could not have been made without the benefit of a proper record, the matter was remanded to the Secretary, in order that a contested case proceeding be conducted prior to the ultimate administrative decision of the Secretary concerning the challenged grants. View "American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Hendricks" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jaclyn Thompson alleged that she was mentally disabled as a result of three incidents at work. Petitioner was a health and physical education teacher. She taught regular gym classes, coached, and served as an advisor and mentor. She also taught gym classes specifically geared toward students with disabilities. During three of petitioner’s classes, students punched, slapped, or pushed her. Petitioner sustained no physical injuries in the three incidents, and she required no medical treatment. Petitioner filed a request for accidental disability retirement benefits based on the three incidents. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denied her request for accidental disability benefits but found petitioner qualified for a deferred retirement. Petitioner argued she met the requirement for mental disability because the incidents involved physical contact. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found petitioner did not meet the standard for accidental disability benefits. However, the ALJ granted her ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ found that she suffered from PTSD, that medication was ineffective at abating her symptoms, and that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regularly assigned duties. Petitioner appealed the denial of accidental disability benefits. The Board affirmed the ALJ. Petitioner then appealed to the Appellate Division. The majority of the panel affirmed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "Thompson v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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From 2012 to 2015, Morris County, New Jersey awarded $4.6 million in taxpayer funds to repair twelve churches, as part of a historic preservation program. This appeal raised two questions for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration: whether the grant program violated the Religious Aid Clause of the New Jersey Constitution and, if so, whether the Religious Aid Clause conflicts with the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the Religious Aid Clause has been a part of New Jersey’s history since the 1776 Constitution. The clause guaranteed that “[n]o person shall . . . be obliged to pay . . . taxes . . . for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” The clause reflected a historic and substantial state interest. The Court found the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program "ran afoul of that longstanding provision." Morris County and the grant recipients claimed that to withhold grants from eligible churches would violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The County and the churches relied heavily on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), as grounds for their argument. The New Jersey Court determined that all of the defendant churches had active congregations, and all conducted regular worship services in one or more structures repaired with grant funds. Several churches specifically explained that they sought funds in order to be able to continue to host religious services. "We do not believe Trinity Lutheran would require that grants be considered and extended to religious institutions under those circumstances." Therefore the New Jersey Court reversed the trial court’s decision to uphold the grants. View "Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders" on Justia Law

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From 2012 to 2015, Morris County, New Jersey awarded $4.6 million in taxpayer funds to repair twelve churches, as part of a historic preservation program. This appeal raised two questions for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration: whether the grant program violated the Religious Aid Clause of the New Jersey Constitution and, if so, whether the Religious Aid Clause conflicts with the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the Religious Aid Clause has been a part of New Jersey’s history since the 1776 Constitution. The clause guaranteed that “[n]o person shall . . . be obliged to pay . . . taxes . . . for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” The clause reflected a historic and substantial state interest. The Court found the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program "ran afoul of that longstanding provision." Morris County and the grant recipients claimed that to withhold grants from eligible churches would violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The County and the churches relied heavily on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), as grounds for their argument. The New Jersey Court determined that all of the defendant churches had active congregations, and all conducted regular worship services in one or more structures repaired with grant funds. Several churches specifically explained that they sought funds in order to be able to continue to host religious services. "We do not believe Trinity Lutheran would require that grants be considered and extended to religious institutions under those circumstances." Therefore the New Jersey Court reversed the trial court’s decision to uphold the grants. View "Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders" on Justia Law

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The case stemmed from a 2010 fire in the City of Paterson (City) that consumed a multi-unit home owned by Florence Brown, taking the lives of four residents and injuring several others as they made their escape. During the lengthy proceedings below, a question arose of whether the City and its electrical inspector, Robert Bierals—alleged by the plaintiffs to be at least partially at fault for the fire, were entitled to qualified or absolute immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA). During discovery, Bierals and the City moved for summary judgment on immunity grounds. The trial court ruled that Bierals and the City were entitled only to qualified immunity and denied their motions. After the close of discovery, Bierals and the City again moved for summary judgment. A different judge granted the motion, ruling that they were entitled to absolute immunity. Because the critical causative conduct in this case was a failure to enforce the law, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded Bierals was entitled to absolute immunity. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division and entered judgment in favor of Bierals and the City. View "Lee v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Sixteen-year-old A.F. and her infant son lived with her biological mother, A.B., in an apartment owned by A.B.’s sister, J.F. In 2012, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the Division) received a referral that A.F. had run away with her infant son in September 2012. The Division dispatched a caseworker to interview A.B. at her apartment. A.B. disclosed that A.F. had run away several days earlier when A.B. took away A.F.’s laptop and cellphone as punishment for being suspended from school. The caseworker went to the high school and met with A.F. During this meeting, A.F. related that she had been staying with various friends since leaving home. A.F. indicated that she had previously returned home to reconcile with A.B. and that they had gone together to the school to have A.F. reinstated. Near the end of the conference, A.F. expressed that she had “no intention of returning to her mom’s home,” and in fact did not. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether defendant A.B. abused or neglected A.F.; that A.B. willfully abandoned A.F.; and that remarks attributed to A.B.’s sister, J.F., were subject to suppression as embedded hearsay. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division majority’s judgment that the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency met its burden of proof concerning A.B.’s abuse or neglect of A.F. The Court found insufficient proof of willful abandonment and therefore reversed on that issue. The Court also found the hearsay evidence was properly suppressed. View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. A.B." on Justia Law