On appeal from the New Jersey Merit System Board, 2004-3830.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically Argued August 22, 2007
Before Judges Lisa and Holston, Jr.
Appellant, William Morris, a corrections officer who had been employed by respondent, Hudson County Corrections Center (Hudson County), for fourteen-and-a-half years appeals the final administrative action of the Merit System Board (the Board) upholding disciplinary action by Hudson County, removing Morris from his employment as a county corrections officer. We affirm. On June 16, 2003, Morris was charged in a complaint returnable in the Kearny Municipal Court with simple assault, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(a), of a Hudson County inmate on June 13, 2003, while Morris was on duty. From June 16, 2003, to November 25, 2003, Morris made at least five court appearances in connection with that charge.
According to Internal Affairs (IA) officer Lenore Levine, Morris failed to keep her informed of all court proceedings and outcomes. On December 16, 2003, after the complaint had been dismissed on November 25, 2003, Levine interviewed Morris concerning the inmate's allegations. At that interview, Levine became aware that Morris had been subject to five court appearances concerning the inmate's allegations against him and that the matter had been dismissed. The dismissal of the charges was confirmed by a December 19, 2003 fax from the municipal court. Morris acknowledged to Levine that he was aware of his duty to keep IA informed of all court appearances. On January 30, 2004, Morris was served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action charging him with insubordination; conduct unbecoming a public employee; neglect of duty; incompetence; inefficiency or failure to perform duties; and other sufficient cause for failure to notify Levine of his November 3, 2003 and November 25, 2003, court appearances before the Union City Municipal Court, to which the complaint had been transferred.
After a March 26, 2004, departmental hearing, the Acting Director determined that all five charges were sustained. A Final Notice of Disciplinary Action was issued removing Morris from his position as a corrections officer effective April 27, 2004.
Morris requested an administrative hearing and the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on September 16, 2004, as a contested matter pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15 and N.J.S.A. 52:14F-1 to -13. Hearings were held on July 11 and July 22, 2005. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an initial decision on September 22, 2005, sustaining the charges against Morris but determined that a six- month suspension from duty was a more appropriate penalty than removal. Hudson County filed exceptions to the reduction of penalty. On December 7, 2005, the Board filed a final administrative decision, finding that plaintiff's conduct warranted his removal from employment. This appeal followed. After the inmate pressed criminal charges against Morris and the summons and complaint were issued, Morris was notified of the pendency of the complaint by complaint notification dated June 13, 2003. The notification informed Morris that he would be contacted by an investigator for an interview and instructed that he was to keep IA aware of any court proceedings and the outcome of the complaint.
By notice dated June 16, 2003, IA advised Morris to keep IA "abreast of any and all court dates . . . or final disposition of your criminal case. Failure to do so will result in further Disciplinary Action."
Section 1.19 of the Hudson County Rules and Regulations Manual, which Morris acknowledged reviewing, states:
1.19 COURT APPEARANCES BY PERSONNEL OF THE HUDSON COUNTY CORRECTIONAL CENTER:
All employees of the Hudson County Correctional Center shall notify the Warden in written report when he/she is ordered to appear in court no matter what the reason for the appearance may be. All complaints filed against employees of the Hudson county Correctional Center must be reported immediately to the Warden.
Although Morris submitted a written report in accordance with a directive from Levine dated June 10, 2003, concerning his knowledge of the May 6, 2003 incident, for which he was accused of assault, neither Levine nor the IA office were made aware of the status of the assault charge against him until Levine's interview with Morris on December 16, 2003. It was at that interview that Morris for the first time informed Levine of his five court appearances and the eventual dismissal of the charge against him.
Morris contended that acceptance of complaints and court notices from the court liaison from IA imputed knowledge of the court dates to IA despite the delivery of the notices in sealed envelopes. Two investigators from IA testified at the OAL hearing that as court liaisons they would receive mail from the mail room and deliver the mail to the corrections officer to whom it was addressed unopened, making only a copy of the sealed envelope and having the officer sign the copy of the envelope acknowledging its delivery to him. Both verified that they never knew the contents of any mail that they delivered. Both confirmed that neither had been informed of any court appearance dates by Morris. Both witnesses indicated that although the notices Morris received did not specify that ...