On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance -- Justices Clifford and Pollock. For reversal -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Clifford, J., Dissenting. Justice Pollock joins in this Dissent.
In this case we consider whether the New Jersey Police Training Commission (Commission) had good cause to dismiss petitioner, who has limited vision in his right eye, from a police training program. Camden County employed Charles Greenwood as a temporary sheriff's officer, and assigned him to complete the police training program supervised by the Commission so that he could become a permanent officer. The director of the training program dismissed Greenwood because he feared that an injury to Greenwood's left eye might render him virtually sightless. After a hearing, an administrative law Judge (ALJ) found that because the Commission had not shown that Greenwood's visual impairment would affect his ability to complete the training safely or successfully, the Commission had acted without good cause. The Commission rejected the ALJ's Conclusion, finding that good cause for termination existed because the Commission had legitimate concerns about Greenwood's safety.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Commission's decision in an unpublished opinion, and also determined that the Commission had rendered its decision within the time limit required by N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(c). We granted certification, 126 N.J. 332, 598 A.2d 890 (1991).
The relevant facts are uncontested. At the age of five, Greenwood contracted a viral infection of the cornea known as
herpes simplex keratitis. The infection caused scar tissue to form over Greenwood's right cornea, significantly blurring his vision in that eye. He retains perfect vision in his left eye and is functionally monocular. As a result, Greenwood's depth perception is substantially impaired, although his peripheral vision is unaffected.
Throughout his youth Greenwood's ophthalmologist imposed no restrictions on his activities and encouraged him to participate fully in athletics. During his school years, Greenwood regularly played softball, basketball, football, and street hockey, and participated in wrestling and gymnastics. He also rode a minibike and a moped. Greenwood's employment history includes work as a tow-motor operator, a cook, a painter, and a cargo-handler on a receiving dock. He has had an unrestricted New Jersey driver's license since he was seventeen years old.
At the age of twenty-three Greenwood applied to Camden County for a position as a sheriff's officer. The County required applicants to certify that they had passed a physical examination. Greenwood's physician described the nature of his visual impairment, and certified that Greenwood was medically fit. Greenwood also passed a physical examination given by the County's physician, Dr. Lawrence Zazzo, who advised Greenwood that wearing special safety lenses to protect his unimpaired eye from injury would be prudent.
Camden County hired Greenwood as a temporary sheriff's officer. During the seven months of his employment, his primary responsibility consisted of escorting prisoners from their jail cells to the courtroom. Greenwood also participated in a preliminary training program, learning basic martial arts maneuvers and the use of a baton. Greenwood's impaired vision in his right eye did not affect his training or the performance of his duties.
To qualify for a permanent position with the County Greenwood had to complete a police training course at an approved school. See N.J.S.A. 52:17B-68. Camden County assigned
Greenwood to a Commission-run program at the New Jersey Police Academy in Sea Girt. Dr. Zazzo examined Greenwood a second time and, fully informed of Greenwood's visual impairment, certified that Greenwood was "medically fit to participate in the training program without limitations."
During his six-week stay at the Academy Greenwood participated fully in a rigorous physical-conditioning program. He testified that he had trained at the firing range on four occasions, performing well enough that some instructors chided other candidates for not shooting as well as someone with only one good eye. The Commission also required candidates to complete a self-defense program, which included training in boxing, police judo, karate, and the use of a baton. Before beginning the self-defense program, the instructors required the trainees to complete forms disclosing any injuries previously sustained and any existing medical conditions. Greenwood explained his eye infection and the resulting blurred vision. After reading Greenwood's form, an instructor sought confirmation from Captain Challender, the Academy's Director of Training, that Greenwood was fit to participate in the self-defense program.
Concerned about the Academy's liability if Greenwood were to injure his left eye, Challender wrote to Dr. Zazzo. In his letter he explained the self-defense training program in detail, erroneously informed Dr. Zazzo that Greenwood lacked peripheral vision, and inquired whether Greenwood's condition rendered him unfit to participate in the program. Dr. Zazzo replied that Greenwood's "functioning vision from the gross examination of the eye chart is well within our parameters." In his opinion, Greenwood was physically fit to engage in the training, but he noted that in the "worst case scenario" Greenwood might injure his good eye, and might thus become virtually sightless. The doctor again suggested that protective lenses might guard against such an occurrence, but noted that Greenwood had been apprised of the possible consequences of such an injury and would have to proceed at his own risk.
Not satisfied with Dr. Zazzo's opinion, Captain Challender sought a second opinion from Dr. Ralph Lanciano, the ophthalmologist for the New Jersey State Police. Dr. Lanciano examined Greenwood, but did not test his peripheral vision. The doctor then wrote to Captain Challender and the sheriff's department, stating in conclusory terms that because Greenwood was essentially monocular, he was "at great risk for injuring his only eye if put in a combat situation." He therefore recommended that Greenwood refrain from engaging in all defensive training, including boxing, judo, karate, and wrestling. Based on Dr. Lanciano's opinion, Captain Challender ...