Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Defendants Township of Sparta, Paul Austin, and Sparta Department of Public Works (collectively, defendants) challenged a denial of workers’ compensation benefits to plaintiff Diane Lapsley under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley was employed by the Township as a librarian for the Sparta Public Library. On February 3, 2014, Lapsley’s husband arrived at the library to drive Lapsley home. As they walked from the library to the car through the parking lot, they were suddenly struck by a snowplow owned by the Township and operated by Paul Austin, a Township employee. As a result, Lapsley suffered injuries to her leg requiring multiple surgeries and leaving her permanently disfigured. Lapsley filed a complaint against defendants in court, and later, a claim for workers’ compensation benefits against the Township in the Law Division of Workers’ Compensation. The Division found that Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment and were therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding Lapsley’s injuries were not compensable under the Act. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment because the parking lot where she was injured was owned and maintained by the Township, adjacent to her place of work, and used by Township employees to park. Lapsley was therefore entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. View "Lapsley v. Township of Sparta" on Justia Law

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The Bergen County Improvement Authority (BCIA) issued a request for qualification (RFQ) for a redeveloper to act as general contractor in the rehabilitation of the Bergen County Courthouse. Nine companies, including plaintiff Dobco, Inc., submitted proposals in response to the RFQ. The BCIA notified four firms that they were selected to proceed, and it notified Dobco and the other firms not selected for the short list. Dobco and plaintiff Hossam Ibrahim, the vice president and a shareholder of Dobco, and a resident and taxpayer of Bergen County, immediately filed separate, but essentially identical, complaints alleging that defendants’ actions violated the Local Public Contracts Law (LPCL) and were arbitrary and capricious. The trial court dismissed plaintiffs’ complaints with prejudice for failure to state a claim, concluding that the project was “not subject to the LPCL because it has been designated a redevelopment project” under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL). The judge determined that plaintiffs were barred from seeking equitable relief because Dobco responded to the RFQ and Ibrahim had not challenged the procurement process or the RFQ prior to filing his complaint. The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of Dobco’s complaint, finding “that Dobco is estopped from now complaining that a process in which it willingly participated violated the law.” The Appellate Division, however, reversed as to Ibrahim, determining that he could proceed with his suit as a taxpayer and remanding to the trial court to enter an order permanently restraining the BCIA from proceeding with the procurement process contemplated by the RFQ. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division substantially for the reasons expressed the appellate court's opinion. The Court required that, going forward, a plaintiff claiming taxpayer standing in an action challenging the process used to award a public contract for goods or services had to file a certification with the complaint. As to the merits of this appeal, the Court departed from the Appellate Division’s decision in only one respect: the Court did not rely on the leasing and financing arrangements contemplated by the BCIA and defendant County of Bergen. View "Dobco, Inc. v. Bergen County Improvement Authority " on Justia Law

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Eighty-five year old Sundiata Acoli had been imprisoned for forty-nine years for his role in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey State Trooper, and the wounding of another. During his time in prison, Acoli had consistently received positive institutional reports from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, completed over a hundred programs and counseling sessions, served on the Honor Unit in his institution, taught a course to younger inmates on rational thinking and emotional control, and learned employable skills. Since 1993, the New Jersey State Parole Board denied Acoli parole every time he became eligible for release. On each occasion, including in 2016 when Acoli was seventy-nine years old, the Parole Board determined that there was a substantial likelihood that Acoli would commit a crime if released. The Board, however, did not indicate what crime it feared Acoli might commit at his advanced age. In 2010, the Parole Board denied Acoli parole, despite psychological assessments that favored his release. The Appellate Division overturned the Board’s decision, finding no substantial support in the record to justify Acoli’s continued imprisonment, and ordered his release. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed on procedural grounds to allow the full Board to take firsthand witness testimony before deciding whether to grant parole to Acoli. At a hearing in 2016, the Parole Board called only one witness, Acoli, who was then suffering from cardiovascular disease and hearing loss. Acoli testified that, if released, he planned to reside with his daughter, a Wall Street risk analyst, and his grandchildren. The State’s psychological expert, despite issuing a report less favorable than the previous one, described Acoli’s risk of committing another offense as low to moderate. The Board again denied parole, stating “that concerns remain that [Acoli] would commit a crime if released on parole.” The Board imposed a fifteen-year future eligibility term. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, finding the Parole Board did not establish “by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that [Acoli] will commit a crime” if placed on parole. "The Parole Board’s decision is entitled to deference -- but not blind deference." View "Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board" on Justia Law

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In February 2019, an attorney made a complaint to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of employees of the Elizabeth Police Department. The complaint alleged that Police Director James Cosgrove, the civilian head of the Department for more than two decades, used racist and sexist language to refer to employees on multiple occasions. In response, the Prosecutor’s Office conducted an internal affairs investigation. In April 2019, the Office sustained the complaints; ten days later, the Attorney General issued a public statement describing the investigation and its conclusion and calling upon Cosgrove to resign, which he did. In July 2019, plaintiff Richard Rivera filed a request for records with the Prosecutor’s Office based on New Jersey's OPRA and the common law. As relevant here, plaintiff asked for “all internal affairs reports regarding” Cosgrove. The Prosecutor’s Office denied the request on the ground that it was “exempt from disclosure under OPRA” and not subject to disclosure under the common law. The trial court concluded the internal affairs report should have been made available under OPRA. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the requested materials were not exempt as “personnel records” under OPRA, but that they could not be disclosed under OPRA on other grounds. Further, the Appellate Division rejected plaintiff’s common law claim, determining that defendant’s interest in preventing disclosure outweighed plaintiff’s right to the documents. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the internal affairs report should have been disclosed, as the Attorney General conceded, but after the trial court reviewed it and redacts parts that raise legitimate confidentiality concerns. View "Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor's Office" on Justia Law

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In October 2017, an incarcerated woman filed a lawsuit against Cumberland County and several corrections officers, including Tyrone Ellis, alleging she had been forced to engage in non-consensual sex acts on a regular basis. Plaintiff Libertarians for Transparent Government (Libertarians) obtained minutes of the public meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System at which the Board considered Ellis’s application for special retirement. According to the minutes, the County originally sought to terminate Ellis, who had been charged with a disciplinary infraction. When he submitted his resignation, the County warned that it intended to continue to prosecute the disciplinary matter. Ellis, in turn, “agreed to cooperate” with the County’s investigation of four other officers suspected of similar misconduct. “As a result of his cooperation, Cumberland County agreed to dismiss the disciplinary charges and permit Mr. Ellis to retire in good standing” with a reduced pension. Libertarians sent the County an OPRA request seeking, as relevant here, the settlement agreement and Ellis’s “'name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor’ in accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.” The County declined to produce the settlement agreement, claiming it was a personnel record exempt from disclosure. In response to the request for information, the County stated in part that “Officer Ellis was charged with a disciplinary infraction and was terminated.” Libertarians filed a complaint in Superior Court, and the trial court ordered the County to provide a redacted version of the settlement agreement. The County appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s judgment. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly ordered disclosure of a redacted settlement agreement, and the Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s order. View "Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County" on Justia Law

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This matter involved a legal challenge to the congressional redistricting map selected by the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission (Commission). On December 22, 2021, a majority of the Commission’s members that included the Chair, voted in favor of the map the Democratic delegation presented. Plaintiffs, the Republican delegation to the Commission, filed an amended complaint on January 5, 2022 to challenge that map. Plaintiffs filed their complaint directly with the New Jersey Supreme Court, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Supreme Court observed it had no role in the outcome of the redistricting process unless the map is "unlawful." The Supreme Court found none of plaintiffs' arguments asserted the plan was unlawful or the result of "invidious discrimination." Because plaintiffs’ allegations were insufficient to support a claim upon which relief can be granted, defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice was granted. View "In the Matter of Establishment of Congressional Districts by the New Jersey Redistricting Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Michele Meade served as Township Manager for Livingston Township for eleven years, from 2005 until her termination in 2016 by Resolution of the Township Council. The Council cited a number of performance areas in the Resolution. An area central to this appeal was Meade’s supervision of Police Chief Craig Handschuch. In 2013, pre-school teachers at the Livingston Community Center observed a man dressed in camouflage, carrying a rifle bag, in the parking lot. The classes went into lockdown and patrol cars were dispatched. Handschuch and Sergeant Kenneth Hanna alerted the responders that the man was an officer involved in a training exercise. Meade went to the Community Center during or in the aftermath of the incident. Days later, Hanna signed a complaint alleging that Meade had violated N.J.S.A. 2C:33-28 by using “unreasonably loud and offensive coarse or abusive language” in addressing him. Meade emailed a report to Handschuch concluding that he and the unit conducting the training were responsible for the incident. That same day, Hanna signed a second complaint against Meade, alleging obstruction. Meade was acquitted of all charges in 2014. Meanwhile, the record reflected ongoing concerns with Handschuch’s performance. An email from one council member following Handschuch’s failure to appear at meetings called by the Council stated, “Bring [Chief Handschuch] up on charges, bring in an investigator or do nothing. . . . [H]e is YOUR employee . . . .” Nevertheless, Meade testified that certain members of the Council did not authorize hiring an investigator. In addition, Meade filed a certification that “Councilman Al Anthony . . . suggested to me that maybe Chief Handschuch did not like reporting to a woman and should report to him as the Mayor instead,” a claim Anthony disputed in his deposition. Meade filed a complaint aalleging that the Council terminated her and replaced her with a male Manager “to appease the sexist male Police Chief.” The trial court granted Livingston’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Meade was terminated for poor work performance and that the record revealed no gender discrimination in her termination. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding sufficient evidence was present for a reasonable jury to find that what Livingston Township Councilmembers perceived to be Police Chief Handschuch’s discriminatory attitude toward Township Manager Meade influenced the Council’s decision to terminate her, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination. View "Meade v. Township of Livingston" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ernest Bozzi requested copies of defendant Jersey City’s most recent dog license records pursuant to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access. Plaintiff, a licensed home improvement contractor, sought the information on behalf of his invisible fence installation business. Plaintiff noted that Jersey City could redact information relating to the breed of the dog, the purpose of the dog, and any phone numbers associated with the records. He sought only the names and addresses of the dog owners. Jersey City denied plaintiff’s request on two grounds: (1) the disclosure would be a violation of the citizens’ reasonable expectation of privacy, contrary to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, by subjecting the dog owners to unsolicited commercial contact; and (2) such a disclosure may jeopardize the security of both dog-owners’ and non-dog-owners’ property. The trial court found the dog licensing records were not exempt and ordered Jersey City to provide the requested information. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred, concluding that owning a dog was a substantially public endeavor in which people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that exempted their personal information from disclosure under the privacy clause of OPRA. View "Bozzi v. City of Jersey City" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Shelly Pritchett worked for the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), which ran the state’s juvenile correctional facilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When her second request for unpaid leave was denied, her supervisor refused to explain the denial or put the denial in writing. On November 1, 2011, Pritchett learned that she would be subject to disciplinary proceedings -- which would result in her termination without a pension -- if she did not resign by the end of the week. Pritchett applied for retirement disability benefits on November 4. Weeks later, her union representative informed the JJC that Pritchett believed she was forced into retirement against her will. The JJC’s Equal Opportunity Office expressed its opinion that the JJC “failed to engage in the interactive process,” which “resulted in a violation of the State Anti-Discrimination Policy,” but opined that Pritchett’s “request for reinstatement [was] mooted by [her] approval for disability retirement.” Pritchett filed a complaint alleging the State violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). A jury awarded Pritchett compensatory damages in excess of $1.8 million and punitive damages of $10 million. The State challenged the punitive damages award. The trial court determined that the punitive damages amount was high but that no miscarriage of justice occurred. The Appellate Division affirmed in large part, but remanded for reconsideration of the punitive damages award, calling upon the trial court to consider the factors discussed in Baker v. National State Bank, 161 N.J. 220 (1999), and BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996). The State petitioned for certiorari review, arguing that the Appellate Division’s remand instructions were flawed in part because they failed to include direction to the trial court to apply heightened scrutiny when reviewing awards of LAD punitive damages against public entities. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the state, modifying the Appellate Division's order to include instruction that the trial court review the punitive damages award with heightened scrutiny. View "Pritchett v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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In June 2020, weeks after George Floyd was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer, the New Jersey Attorney General issued two Directives calling for the release of the names of law enforcement officers who commit disciplinary violations that result in the imposition of “major discipline” -- termination, demotion, or a suspension of more than five days. A summary of the misconduct and the sanction imposed also had to be disclosed. In this appeal, the issues presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court came from challenges brought against the Directives by five groups representing state and local officers. The Appellate Division found that the Directives did not violate constitutional guarantees of due process or equal protection. The court also rejected claims that the Directives violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and that they impaired appellants’ right to contract and violate their constitutional right to collective negotiations. Finally, the appellate court concluded the Directives were not arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, or against public policy. The Supreme Court found the Directives were consistent with legislative policies and rested on a reasonable basis. The Court did not find merit in the bulk of the remaining challenges, except for one that required "more careful attention:" Officers subjected to major discipline for the past twenty years said they were promised that their names would not be released, and that they relied on that promise in resolving disciplinary accusations. Essentially they asked the State to stand by promises they claimed were made throughout the prior twenty years. Resolution of that issue will require judicial review to decide if the elements of the doctrine of promissory estoppel were met. The identities of officers subject to major discipline since the Directives were issued in June 2020 could be disclosed; going forward, future disciplinary sanctions could be disclosed in the same manner. View "In re Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive Nos. 2020-5 and 2020-6" on Justia Law