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Stowell v. State Association of Chiefs of Police

November 17, 1999

GARY F. STOWELL, SR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
V.
NEW JERSEY STATE ASSOCIATION OF CHIEFS OF POLICE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Before Judges Skillman, D'Annunzio and Newman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued September 22, 1999 - Decided November 17, 1999

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

The issue presented by this appeal is whether the State Association of Chiefs of Police (Association), which is composed of present and former chiefs of police, may expel a retired member who has become an attorney and now provides legal representation to municipalities that places him in an adversarial relationship with police chiefs. We conclude that plaintiff's expulsion from the Association is justifiable under these circumstances and therefore affirm the order dismissing his claim.

Plaintiff was formerly the Chief of Police of Winslow Township in Camden County. While he was a police chief, plaintiff was an active member of the Association. In 1990, plaintiff retired in order to engage in the practice of law. At that time, he became a retired member of the Association.

Plaintiff has been retained by a number of municipalities to provide legal services relating to the organization and operation of their police departments. This legal representation has placed plaintiff in an adversarial relationship with some chiefs of police. For example, he represented Westwood and Waterford Townships in connection with matters which resulted in the initiation of disciplinary charges against their Chiefs of Police. Plaintiff also was involved in an investigation of the Nutley Police Department, including its Chief of Police. In addition, he provided legal advice to the Borough of Carteret in connection with a police department reorganization, which apparently resulted in a reduction in the Chief of Police's powers.

On November 5, 1997, the Association informed plaintiff that his membership was "relinquish[ed]" because of his legal representation of "municipal entities or officials which usurp or threaten to usurp the authority of chiefs of police."

Plaintiff brought this action to compel the Association to reinstate him. Plaintiff claimed that the Association had violated its own constitution and bylaws as well as the due process guarantees of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions in suspending him. Plaintiff also claimed that his suspension violated public policy and infringed upon the Supreme Court of New Jersey's exclusive authority to regulate the practice of law under N.J. Const., art. VI, § 2, ¶ 3.

The case was brought before the trial court on cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court concluded that plaintiff's activities as an attorney were not prohibited by the section of the Association's constitution under which his membership was suspended. However, the court also concluded plaintiff's membership could be "revoked" under another section of the Association's constitution, which authorizes "revocation of ... membership, when in the executive committee's judgment the conduct or action of the member are not in the best interests of the Association." The court rejected plaintiff's argument that his expulsion from the Association would violate public policy.

Subsequent to the entry of orders memorializing these rulings, the Association's executive committee adopted a resolution recommending the revocation of plaintiff's membership. The resolution stated that plaintiff "repeatedly and consistently seeks and obtains appointments to positions which require him to prosecute members of this Association, and to reduce the authority of, or eliminate, the office of chief of police in municipalities throughout New Jersey." The general membership approved this recommendation by a 91 to 1 vote. After that action was taken, plaintiff filed this appeal.

Plaintiff's sole argument on appeal is that his expulsion from the Association violates public policy. Consequently, there is no issue before us as to whether the Association's actions conformed with its constitution and bylaws. In addition, plaintiff has abandoned his constitutional claims.

"[A] private organization has a great interest in controlling its own affairs." Rutledge v. Gulian, 93 N.J. 113, 123 (1983). Therefore, such an organization ordinarily "may set its own membership qualifications and restrictions." Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Ass'n, 95 N.J. 306, ...


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