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Rolleri v. Lordi

Decided: January 21, 1977.


Matthews, Seidman and Horn. The opinion of the court was delivered by Seidman, J.A.D.


Plaintiffs were among a number of persons who took a Civil Service examination on July 12, 1973 for the position of county detective for Essex County. They passed and their names were certified for placement upon the employment list established by the Civil Service Commission as eligible for appointment in the event of a vacancy. When the Essex County Prosecutor made no appointments thereafter to the position of county detective, other than to fill vacancies, but did appoint six persons as county investigators, also to fill vacancies in that position, plaintiffs filed a complaint in Chancery Division to enjoin him (1) from "making appointments to the position of County investigator with the Essex County Prosecutor's Office while there exists a Civil Service list of eligible candidates for the position of County detective"; (2) "to terminate the employment of anyone who has been appointed to the position of County investigator subsequent to December 10, 1974," and (3) to meet the needs for investigative personnel through the appointment of county detectives.

Following a hearing, the trial judge entered judgment that

The judge further specified that the judgment was prospective only and did not affect "County Investigators of Essex County heretofore appointed by virtue of application to the Essex County Assignment Judge."

Defendant appealed. Plaintiffs cross-appealed from that portion of the judgment which in effect barred the termination of those investigators appointed subsequent to December 10, 1974.

The issue presented, seemingly of first impression, is this: Where a county prosecutor is authorized by order of the assignment judge to employ specified numbers of detectives and investigators above the statutory limit, and thereafter the permissible numbers of detectives in that county is increased by statute, is the prosecutor required to appoint detectives up to the new limit before filling any vacancies occurring among the investigators?

We shall first dispose of two matters raised preliminarily by the prosecutor, neither of which is meritorious. The contentions are that in by-passing the Civil Service Commission, plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies; and, assuming that recourse to the courts was proper, plaintiffs should have brought an action for mandamus in lieu of prerogative writs in the Law Division, instead of seeking a mandatory injunction in the Chancery Division. It does not really matter here whether relief should have been sought in an action at law rather than in Chancery. Under our 1947 Constitution, law and equity jurisdiction merged into the Superior Court, which court possesses original jurisdiction for all causes of action. Asbestos Fibres, Inc. v. Martin Laboratories, Inc. , 12 N.J. 233, 239 (1953). The Law Division and the Chancery Division may each exercise

the powers and the functions of the other when the ends of justice so require. S. v. H.M. , 111 N.J. Super. 553, 557 (App. Div. 1970). The Chancery Division obtained jurisdiction of the subject matter here by the filing of the complaint. It is apparent that the facts and issues would have been the same had the complaint been drawn as one in lieu of prerogative writs. The prosecutor does not suggest that a different result might otherwise have been reached. We are satisfied in the circumstances that the Chancery Division correctly proceeded to determine the controversy before it.

As for plaintiffs' alleged failure to exhaust their administrative remedies, such exhaustion is neither jurisdictional nor absolute and may be departed from where, in the opinion of the court, the interest of justice so requires. Matawan v. Monmouth Cty. Tax Bd. , 51 N.J. 291, 296 (1968). Where, as here, only a question of law is in issue, to require an exhaustion of administrative remedies "would be useless delay." Nolan v. Fitzpatrick , 9 N.J. 477, 487 (1952). It does not appear to us that the resolution of the issue involved here, which would still be subject to our appellate review if decided in the first instance by the Civil Service Commission, requires any particular agency expertness.

We shall, therefore, address ourselves to the merits of the principal issue involved in this appeal. A brief introductory review of the statutes pertaining to the appointment of county detectives and investigators, and a summary of the events preceding the institution of this litigation, are necessary for a full understanding of the issue.

N.J.S.A. 2A:157-2, which is part of the County Detectives and County Investigators Act (Revision of 1951), authorizes the prosecutor in each of the counties to appoint as county detectives

The additional office or position of county investigator is set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:157-10. It is placed in the unclassified service of the Civil Service. Such county investigators, not in excess of the number, and at salaries not less than the minimum amounts, provided ...

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