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Nardello v. Township of Voorhees

April 4, 2005


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, CAM-L-5639-01.

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



Argued March 16, 2005

Before Judges Braithwaite, Lisa and Winkelstein.

Plaintiff, Jeffrey Nardello, appeals from the Law Division's summary judgment dismissing his complaint under New Jersey's Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -8. We reverse.*fn1

Plaintiff was employed as a police officer by the Voorhees Township Police Department from September 1980 until September 2002. Defendant Keith Hummel is the Township's Chief of Police; defendant John Prettyman is the Deputy Chief; and defendant Louis Bordi is a lieutenant.

During his employment, plaintiff received excellent work performance evaluations, normal pay raises, and was never demoted; he was promoted to lieutenant in 1999. As a lieutenant, he was the commanding officer of the detective bureau and in charge of the department SWAT team. In his brief, plaintiff lists thirty pages of incidents he claims collectively constitute adverse employment actions his employer took against him. We will not repeat each claim, but will review several of them to place plaintiff's arguments in context.

In 1999, plaintiff was required to perform an internal investigation regarding the alleged misconduct of an officer. Prettyman told plaintiff that Hummel was "gunning" for the officer, indicating that he wanted plaintiff to work hard to find incriminating evidence against the officer. Plaintiff informed Hummel that he would comply with the law and perform a fair investigation. Thereafter, plaintiff claims his work environment became hostile and retaliatory. He was denied permission to obtain firearms instructor training relative to his membership on the SWAT team. He claims that because of Hummel's animosity, and "in order not to have it adversely impact on plaintiff's friends and colleagues in the SWAT team, plaintiff was coerced into resigning on September 1, 2000, both as a leader and as a member of the SWAT team. . . ."

Also in September 2000, Prettyman ordered plaintiff to conduct an investigation into an adult sex party attended by a Township police officer. Based on plaintiff's "fact-finding," the officer was written up and told not to attend those types of parties because "officers have to abide by a higher moral standard." Plaintiff did not agree with the officer's punishment, believing it to be a violation of the officer's civil rights. Consequently, plaintiff reported the alleged violation to the prosecutor's office. That office later informed plaintiff that the officer's rights were violated and the disciplinary letter should be removed from his file. After plaintiff told Prettyman that he contacted the prosecutor's office and its response, some of plaintiff's job responsibilities were transferred to another officer.

Plaintiff filed a written complaint in October 2000 regarding his concern that department personnel procedures were being routinely violated. Hummel demanded to know who plaintiff intended to call as witnesses for the complaint, but when plaintiff refused to tell him because of an alleged concern about retaliation, Hummel threatened to charge plaintiff with insubordination. Hummel also stated that plaintiff was mentally unstable and should see a psychiatrist.

The following January, plaintiff believed a Township police officer had unreasonably "sicced" a K-9 dog on a suspect and the department was covering it up by submitting black-and-white photographs of the injuries instead of color photographs, in violation of the department manual, which provided that color photographs should always be issued for police dog bite incidents. He asked the Camden County Prosecutor's Office to conduct an internal investigation into the incident. As a result of taking that action, plaintiff claims he was "wrongfully removed from the detective bureau, an act of retaliation, and ultimately had all of his authority and responsibility taken away, such that plaintiff, even though a lieutenant, supervised no one."

On September 7, 2000, plaintiff met with the Township Mayor regarding the "goings on" at the police department. He told the Mayor about the retaliatory environment and its impact on his work. The Mayor told him to "play the game."

Plaintiff also claims he was given demeaning jobs for his rank: removing and installing an alarm in the stairwell; performing maintenance of toilets; performing background investigations; and overseeing a building project. He was not permitted to ...

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