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Chappell v. Dep't of Corrections

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


March 27, 2008

THERON CHAPPELL, APPELLANT,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted March 10, 2008

Before Judges Lintner and Graves.

Theron Chappell, a state prison inmate, appeals from a final administrative decision by the Department of Corrections (DOC). He was found guilty of "fighting with another person," in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a) *.004, and "conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility," in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a) *.306. "A finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing [must] be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act," N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a), and Chappell contends the final decision by the DOC, which upheld the hearing officer's decision, should be reversed because the hearing officer's decision was "not based upon substantial and credible evidence." After reviewing the record, we conclude the hearing officer's decision is supported by sufficient credible evidence, and we affirm. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D).

In his administrative appeal of the hearing officer's decision, Chappell admitted "that his action of playing around [with inmate Holley] created a disruption," but he denied that he was fighting with Holley. At Chappell's disciplinary hearing, the evidence included separate reports prepared by Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) M. Prietz and Corrections Officer Recruit (COR) William Sullivan stating they each observed two inmates fighting in the prison yard near the hardball court on May 24, 2007, at approximately 6:15 p.m. When SCO Prietz reported the incident the riot bell was activated, and the inmates' recreational time was terminated. As part of the DOC investigation, Lt. C. House spoke to three separate confidential informants who identified Chappell and Holley as the two inmates involved in the fight. Lt. House then spoke to both inmates. Holley admitted having a disagreement with Chappell, and Chappell admitted when he tried to talk to Holley, "it was heated and may have gotten a little out of control." Investigator Calderon also prepared a report indicating that a video recording of the Main Recreation Yard showed "both inmates throwing several punches at one another."

When Chappell was served with the charges, he "stated that he and inmate Holley were only horseplaying and it was not serious"; at his disciplinary hearing, Chappell described the incident as "horseplay"; and, on appeal, Chappell contends he and Holley were only "playing around." Moreover, Chappell contends the hearing officer's decision is not supported by sufficient evidence because the hearing officer concluded the video tape of the incident did not show "whether both inmates [were] playing or fighting."

A finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing must be "supported by substantial evidence." Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 530 (1975). Substantial evidence is "'such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" In re Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 35 N.J. 358, 376 (1961) (quoting In re Application of Hackensack Water Co., 41 N.J. Super. 408, 418 (App. Div. 1956)).

The scope of our review is limited. "Ordinarily, an appellate court will reverse the decision of [an] administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980) (citing Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963)); accord Williams v. Dep't of Corr., 330 N.J. Super. 197, 203-04 (App. Div. 2000). "We cannot substitute our judgment for that of the agency where its findings are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record." Johnson v. Dep't of Corr., 375 N.J. Super. 347, 352 (App. Div. 2005).

In this case, the hearing officer's determination that Chappell was guilty of prohibited acts *.004 and *.306, is based not only on the personal observations of SCO Prietz and COR Sullivan, but also on the information contained in the reports submitted by Lt. House and Investigator Calderon. And it is clear from our review of those investigative reports that the hearing officer's decision is supported by substantial credible evidence.

Affirmed.

20080327

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