The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The issue in this appeal is whether this Court should sustain an order issued by the Merit System Board that terminated an employee of a State psychiatric hospital for physical abuse of a patient. That inquiry requires us to determine whether the Appellate Division applied the proper standard when it reviewed the factual findings of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on which the Merit System Board (Board) relied in issuing its order. We also address the legal Conclusion of the ALJ and the Board that the employee's conduct constituted patient abuse mandating her removal.
Respondent Eva Taylor was employed for more than fifteen years at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital (Greystone), a facility run by the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS). Taylor began working at Greystone as a food service worker in 1980, and in 1991 she was transferred within the hospital to the direct care department where she served as a human services technician. On November 29, 1995, Taylor was suspended without pay for physically abusing a patient, conduct officially proscribed by DHS Administrative Order 4:08-C.3. On January 5, 1996, after an administrative hearing, Taylor was permanently removed from her job at Greystone. Prior to the incident under review, Taylor had an unblemished disciplinary record.
Taylor's termination resulted from an incident that occurred on November 11, 1995, the facts concerning which are sharply disputed. On that day, Taylor was working the day shift and around 3:30 p.m. was assisting the nurses in dispensing medication to the patients. While waiting in the medication dispensation line, two female patients, B.M. and E.S., began to argue and Taylor attempted to separate them. Taylor had difficulty calming B.M., who continued to argue with E.S. Concerned that B.M. would become aggressive, Taylor called for the help of Anna Samji, a registered nurse.
At the hearing conducted by the ALJ, Taylor testified that Samji did not immediately respond to her request for help. Because B.M. was becoming increasingly agitated, Taylor went to the nurses' station. She opened the door of the station with her key, found Samji reviewing patients' charts, and told Samji about the altercation. Without responding to Taylor, Samji walked out of the nurses' station, ordered Georgia Edwards, a licensed practical nurse, to give B.M. an injection of a tranquilizer, and directed Taylor to take B.M. into the medication room for the injection. B.M., uncooperative and refusing to go into the medication room, grabbed Taylor by the collar of her shirt and would not let go. Although Taylor grabbed B.M.'s wrists, as she was trained to do with an aggressive patient, Taylor was unable to remove B.M.'s hands from her collar. Linda Wright, a human services technician, helped Taylor get B.M., who continued to hold onto Taylor's collar, into a chair in the medication room.Once B.M. was seated in the medication room, Wright was able to release Taylor from B.M.'s grasp. When asked whether she recalled whether the door to the medication room was open or closed, Taylor stated that she did not recall, noting that [Y]ou can't afford to take your eye off the patient and worry about this door here. Your first concern is, make sure that [the patient] doesn't do anything to hurt herself, make sure that you don't do anything to hurt her, nor let her hurt you. So you have to keep your head back, your arms have to be out, because [the patients] will head butt you. Taylor left the medication room before an injection was administered.
Samji's testimony is in stark contrast to Taylor's. According to Samji, she was in the nurses' station reviewing patients' medical charts when she heard Taylor call for her assistance. Samji left the nurses' station, determined that B.M. was agitated and needed some medication to "calm her down," and ordered Edwards to give B.M. an injection of a tranquilizer. Samji went to check B.M.'s chart, which was at the nurses' station, and then returned to the medication room. There, Samji observed over the half door enclosing the medication room B.M. sitting on a chair in the medication room and Eva Taylor was hitting her. And Edwards was standing on this side, holding on the medication cart, and one hand on her like this and she was standing and watching the scene.
[Taylor] was hitting -- she was hitting [with] both her hands, clenched fist. Was going up and down on her. She was standing like this in front of the patient, the patient was sitting on the chair, and the patient was not seen, because she was covering her almost, and I never saw any movement of the patient's hand or anything. I only saw this going on, up and down, on the patient.
Samji opened the half door, told Taylor to stop hitting B.M., and unsuccessfully tried to pull Taylor, described as "big" and "tall" by Samji, away from B.M. Wright eventually came in and separated Taylor from B.M.
Once Taylor and B.M. were separated, Samji turned her attention to other patients who had been waiting outside the medication room, some of whom had become upset as a result of the incident between Taylor and B.M. When Samji returned to the medication room, she was unable to get in because the door was closed and locked. She knocked, but no one opened the door. Eventually, B.M. came out and told Samji, "Anna, Eva [Taylor] hit me."
Before her shift was over, Samji wrote an incident report regarding the altercation between B.M. and E.S.; she did not state in that report that Taylor had hit B.M. Samji called her supervisor, Theodore Bryant, to report the altercation between E.S. and B.M. and the alleged abuse by Taylor. Bryant refused to take her call because it was the end of his shift, and instead gave the phone to the night-shift supervisor. Although Samji reported the patient-to-patient altercation to the night-shift supervisor, Samji believed that the incident involving Taylor was a sensitive issue that should be discussed only with her immediate supervisor. Samji therefore waited until the following day to report that incident to Bryant.
3. Other Witnesses' Testimony
Bryant, Edwards, and Wright provided testimony at the hearing that substantially comported with that of Taylor. Bryant, a registered nurse and Supervisor of Patient Services, testified that on November 11, 1995, he was working the day shift and received a phone call from Samji around 4:20, after his shift had ended. When Samji began explaining that there had been an altercation, Bryant handed the phone to the night-shift supervisor. The following day Samji told Bryant that she needed to speak with him. ...