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Thurber v. City of Burlington

June 20, 2007

MICHELLE THURBER, APPELLANT-RESPONDENT,
v.
CITY OF BURLINGTON, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT, AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY JUDICIARY AND THE HONORABLE JOHN A. SWEENEY, A.J.S.C., INTERVENORS-APPELLANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 387 N.J. Super. 279 (2006).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether a deputy municipal court administrator who engaged in conduct unbecoming a judicial employee is subject to the disciplinary authority of the Assignment Judge or the Merit System Board.

Plaintiff, Michelle Thurber had been employed by defendant, the City of Burlington, as a deputy municipal court administrator for over ten years. On September 16, 2000, Thurber was stopped by the police, taken into custody and charged with several offenses. Approximately one month later, John A. Sweeney, the Assignment Judge of the Burlington Vicinage, wrote a letter to Burlington's Mayor and City Council advising that under Rule 1:33-4, he was removing Thurber from her position pending resolution of the charges. Thurber was suspended with pay. Following her guilty plea to reckless driving and disturbing the peace, the Assignment Judge ordered Thurber to show cause why she should not be removed from her position with the municipal court. He later withdrew that order but directed the Mayor and City Council to take disciplinary action against Thurber. The City appointed a hearing officer, who conducted a hearing. The hearing officer found that Thurber had engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee and that termination was appropriate.

Thurber appealed to the Merit System Board, which transferred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing. The Administrative Law Judge found that Thurber's actions leading up to her arrest constituted conduct unbecoming a public employee and a six-month suspension was the appropriate discipline. The ALJ also concluded that he was without authority to order Thurber's reinstatement over the objections of the Assignment Judge. Thurber appealed the decision of the ALJ to the Merit System Board, which adopted the ALJ's findings of fact, concluded that the six-month suspension was appropriate and ordered Thurber to be reinstated notwithstanding the objections of the Assignment Judge. The parties appealed, and the Appellate Division allowed the Judiciary and the Assignment Judge to intervene. The Appellate Division then affirmed the Merit System Board's decision in a published opinion, Thurber v. City of Burlington, 387 N.J. Super. 279 (App. Div. 2006). The Court granted the petitions of the City and the intervenors.

HELD: Under the circumstances presented in this appeal, the deputy municipal court administrator's position was not a confidential judicial position under the disciplinary authority of the Assignment Judge. The six-month suspension imposed by the Merit System Board was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.

1. The Chief Justice of the Court is responsible for the administration of all of the courts in the State. The Chief Justice appoints an Assignment Judge in each vicinage to assist and report to the Chief. The responsibilities of an Assignment Judge are set forth in Rule 1:33-4, which include appointing and discharging judicial support personnel "[s]ubject to uniform minimum standards and conditions promulgated by the Administrative Director.." (pp. 6-7)

2. In 1992, the New Jersey Constitution was amended to effect a statewide unification of the courts. Thereafter, the Legislature enacted the Judicial Employees Unification Act, N.J.S.A. 2B:11-1 to -12, which created a unified system statewide for judiciary employees. The Act preserved the judiciary's right to create unclassified positions and to appoint individuals to fill those positions pursuant to Rule 1:33-4. Other positions within the judiciary are filled pursuant to Civil Service guidelines. (pp. 8-14)

3. The Court has never relinquished its constitutional authority over judiciary employees. Rather, it has exercised that right by allocating judiciary positions either to career service or judiciary unclassified service. Judiciary employees occupying career service titles enjoy the same statutory rights and privileges as non-judicial career service employees under the Civil Service Act, N.J.S.A. 11A:2-1 to -24. (p. 14)

4. All parties agree that Thurber's position as deputy municipal court administrator is a career service position. The allocation of deputy municipal court administrator to the career service carries with it the Court's recognition that Thurber is also subject to the authority of the Merit System Board. (pp. 14-15)

5. The Board's discipline of Thurber does not infringe on the Court's authority to make rules governing the court system because the Court had previously designated Thurber's position as one allocated to the career service. Rule 1:33-4(e) does not give assignment judges plenary authority over career service employees. Rather, the Rule grants authority over unclassified employees and reserves to the Chief Justice authority to designate which employees are unclassified and which are classified civil service. (pp. 15-18)

6. There is nothing arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable in the Merit System Board's decision that Thurber should be suspended from her position, rather than terminated. (pp. 18-20)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA. ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE HOENS' opinion. JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens

Argued May 1, 2007

This appeal presents us with the opportunity to clarify the intersection between discipline of employees holding career service municipal court positions and the authority of Assignment Judges as this Court's constitutional designees for oversight of judiciary employees within the vicinages. Because we conclude that, under the circumstances presented here, this employee's job classification was allocated by the judiciary to the career service for disciplinary purposes, and because we further conclude that the penalty imposed upon the employee by the Merit System Board was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, we reject the suggestion that the Board's exercise of authority interfered with the constitutional prerogatives of the Judiciary or the Assignment Judge.

I.

The facts that gave rise to this matter are not in dispute. At the time of the events in question, plaintiff Michelle Thurber had been employed by defendant City of Burlington (City) as a deputy municipal court administrator for over ten years. Although the particulars are not germane to our consideration of the issues raised on appeal, early in the morning on Saturday, September 16, 2000, plaintiff was stopped by the police in Cherry Hill, taken into custody, and charged with several offenses. The following Monday morning, David Thompson, the City Administrator of Burlington, told plaintiff that he was aware of the incident and commented that her job was not in jeopardy. Approximately a month later, John A. Sweeney, the Assignment Judge of the Burlington Vicinage, wrote a letter about the incident to the Mayor and Council of the City. In his letter, the Assignment Judge advised the Mayor and Council that he was exercising his authority under Rule 1:33-4 to remove plaintiff temporarily from her position with the municipal court pending resolution of the charges in Cherry Hill. A few days later, based on a decision made by the Mayor and Council, plaintiff was suspended with pay.

In January 2001, plaintiff entered a plea of guilty to reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96, and disturbing the peace in violation of a municipal ordinance, which resulted in the suspension of her driver's license and the imposition of a fine, respectively. Three other charges, driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest, and criminal mischief, were dismissed. The City Solicitor then notified the Assignment Judge of the disposition of the matter in Cherry Hill, after which the Assignment Judge ordered plaintiff to show cause why she should not be removed from her position with the municipal ...


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