On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
Matthews, Antell and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Matthews, P.J.A.D.
This is an appeal from the denial of a demand for summary confirmation of an arbitration award. The County, as a public employer, disciplined one of its Sheriff's Officers for conduct unbecoming an employee. The dispute was submitted to binding arbitration in accordance with the employment agreement signed by both parties.
James O'Hara is a Bergen County Sheriff's Officer represented for bargaining purposes by plaintiff Bergen County Law Enforcement Group (L.E.G.). O'Hara is a public employee employed by defendant Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders (Freeholders).
On January 7, 1981 O'Hara accompanied a county electrician throughout the Bergen County Courthouse/Jail complex. The electrician was replacing lightbulbs and O'Hara had been given keys to gain access to various areas. Among the areas visited was the fifth floor, which had formerly been used in part for the jail. While working in the area, O'Hara took a large green hat later identified as belonging to the jury manager. O'Hara intended to entertain his friends at lunch with the hat as a prop. Later that afternoon the owner reported his hat missing. O'Hara was called and he returned the hat.
On January 27, 1981 O'Hara received a "Notice of Minor Disciplinary Action", which charged him with "[c]onduct unbecoming an employee in the public service," specifically:
1. Improper manning of post, thereby jeopardizing security of the main jail.
2. Taking of personal property without the owner's permission.
The same notice informed O'Hara he had been fined $394.23, the equivalent of five days' pay.
The Employment Agreement negotiated and signed between the Freeholders and L.E.G. provided that all grievances should be presented first to the immediate supervisor, then to the department head and finally to the County Administrator. If a satisfactory resolution was not found, the employee had the right to submit the grievance to binding arbitration. The negotiated grievance procedure also provided that if an employee has been suspended for more than five days he may elect to appeal through Civil Service channels and forego the grievance procedure.
L.E.G. and O'Hara submitted his disciplinary dispute to binding arbitration pursuant to the agreement.
O'Hara did not contest the allegation that he had taken the hat without permission. The owner accepted O'Hara's statement that he had only done it as a lark and had intended to return it. The contested issue at the ...