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Azzara v. Township of Waterford

April 20, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, L-10956-05.

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



Argued January 17, 2007

Before Judges Lisa, Holston, Jr. and Grall.

The novel issue presented by this appeal is whether an individual hired as a municipal police officer under the so-called alternate route method authorized by the 1998 amendment to the Police Training Act (PTA), N.J.S.A. 52:17B-66 to -77.6, may be subject to a probationary period during which he or she can be terminated without cause. The trial judge found that defendant, Waterford Township, a non-civil service municipality, lacked authority to impose a probationary period under these circumstances. The judge therefore granted plaintiff's summary judgment motion, determining that defendant's termination of plaintiff without cause was unlawful and ordering plaintiff's reinstatement. We disagree and reverse.

With exceptions not relevant here, the PTA requires the successful completion of an approved police training course as a prerequisite to appointment as a permanent police officer in a municipal police department. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-68. As originally enacted, the PTA required that an individual was eligible to enroll in a course only if he or she was first hired as a police officer on a probationary or temporary basis. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69. Under this scheme, often referred to as the traditional method, the municipality would then pay the cost of the course, and the officer would attend on a leave of absence with pay. Ibid. The probationary period could not exceed one year, but, apparently recognizing that enrollment availability fluctuates and the course lasts a number of months, the statute allows for an extension of not more than six months if necessary for completion of the course. Ibid.

The 1998 amendment authorized an alternate route, by which an individual not hired as a police officer could enroll in a police training course at his or her own expense and attend on his or her own time, subject to meeting prescribed qualifications and passing a background check. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.1. Upon successful completion of the course, the individual could seek appointment as a police officer. Ibid. The amendment further provides that an alternate route individual "shall only be eligible for appointment as a permanent full-time member of a police department or force." N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.2. The interpretation of this provision is the basis of the dispute in this case.

The material facts are undisputed. Plaintiff availed himself of the alternate route. He enrolled in a course at the Camden County Police Academy on January 27, 2003 and successfully completed it on June 27, 2003. On December 15, 2004, Waterford Township hired plaintiff as a police officer. Waterford Township had in effect an ordinance*fn1 and departmental rules and regulations providing that no person may receive a permanent appointment as a police officer without first receiving and completing a one-year probationary or temporary appointment as a police officer after successfully completing an approved police training course. On December 8, 2005, plaintiff was notified by a letter from the chief that the department was "terminating [his] probation effective immediately."

Plaintiff brought this action, contending his appointment was permanent from the outset pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.2, and he could not be terminated except for cause after the filing of charges and a hearing. See N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, seeking reinstatement. Waterford Township cross-moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the complaint. The judge granted plaintiff's motion and denied the Township's.*fn2 He concluded that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.2 required plaintiff's appointment to be permanent from the outset, thus precluding termination without cause at any time. Alternatively, he reasoned that even if the Township was permitted to impose a one-year probationary term, the five months plaintiff spent in the training course should be tacked on to the fifty-one weeks he spent as a member of the Township police department, thus making plaintiff's aggregate service more than one year. We reject both rationales.

When the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the statute must be enforced as written. Hubbard v. Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 392 (2001). Where a literal interpretation of individual statutory terms would lead to results inconsistent with the overall statutory scheme of which it is a part, that interpretation should be rejected. Id. at 392-93. Words of a statute must be read not only for their ordinary meaning, but in context with related provisions so as to give sense to the legislation as a whole. Chasin v. Montclair State Univ., 159 N.J. 418, 426-27 (1999).

When interpreting statutes, the overriding judicial function is to determine the Legislature's intent. Cornblatt v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218, 231 (1998). This is especially true where the language is susceptible of more than one possible interpretation. Ibid. Our analysis therefore requires consideration of the language of N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.2, related statutes and legal principles, the purpose of the 1998 alternate route amendment, and any relevant legislative history.

N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.2 provides: "A person who completes a police training course pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.1] shall only be eligible for appointment as a permanent full-time member of a police department or force." The section to which it refers, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.1, is the other component of the 1998 amendment. It provides: "A person who does not hold a probationary or temporary appointment as a police officer, but who is seeking such an appointment may enroll in a police training course . . . ." N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69.1a. The initial phrase in this section relates back to the traditional method for enrolling in and completing the required training course:

Notwithstanding the provisions of R.S. 11:22-6, a probationary or temporary appointment as a police officer may be made for a total period not exceeding 1 year for the purpose of enabling a person seeking permanent appointment to take a police training course as prescribed in this act, provided, however, that the time period may exceed 1 year for those persons enrolled prior to the 1-year limit in a police training course scheduled to end subsequent to the 1-year limit, and for those persons who, prior to the 1-year limit, have been scheduled to attend a police training course which commences subsequent to the 1-year limit. In no case shall any extension granted for the reasons herein listed exceed 6 months. Every person holding such a probationary or ...

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