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In re Stouch

June 13, 2008

IN THE MATTER OF KEITH STOUCH.


On appeal from the Merit System Board, Department of Personnel, Docket No. 2004-2328.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued May 6, 2008

Before Judges Winkelstein and Yannotti.

Appellant Keith Stouch appeals from a final decision of the Merit System Board (Board) that upheld a determination by the Township of Irvington terminating his employment with the Irvington Police Department (IPD) on the ground that he was psychologically unfit to perform the duties of a police officer. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

We briefly summarize the relevant procedural history and facts. Stouch began working for the IPD on August 1, 1994. In April 1999, while on duty, Stouch drove his vehicle over a man lying in a toll plaza on the Garden State Parkway, inadvertently causing the man's death. In August 2000, Stouch and another officer were pursuing a murder suspect when they collided with another vehicle. Stouch suffered neck and back injuries, and underwent back surgeries in January 2001 and January 2003.

In March 2002, Stouch began counseling with a licensed social worker who provides treatment to police officers that suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Subsequently, Stouch was referred to Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, a board certified psychiatrist, for additional treatment. Dr. Eisenstein prescribed certain medications to help Stouch sleep.

After the second surgery, the IPD placed Stouch on light duty and assigned Stouch to "communications." He was responsible for receiving emergency calls and dispatching officers. On July 11, 2003, while performing these duties, Stouch was involved in a verbal altercation with another police officer, Brian Rice. According to Stouch, there had been "some type of miscommunication" and Officer Rice did not believe that he had been given information quickly enough. Rice returned to police headquarters and confronted Stouch. Stouch claimed that Rice had threatened his life.

Following that incident, Stouch again consulted Dr. Eisenstein. At Eisenstein's recommendation, Stouch remained out of work temporarily. By letter dated August 20, 2003, Eisenstein recommended to the IPD that Stouch be granted medical leave until September 30, 2003. Eisenstein said that the incident of July 11, 2003 with officer Rice was a "triggering event" for Stouch's PTSD.

In his letter, Eisenstein also stated that Stouch was taking certain medications for his PTSD and sleeping problems. Eisenstein asserted that the medication would not impair Stouch's judgment or reaction time if a situation arose in which Stouch had to take some action. Eisenstein said that if Stouch "is able to return to work in the future and continues on his medications[,] there would be no problem with him carrying out his daily duties as a police officer."

On September 26, 2003, the IPD sent Stouch a letter directing that he attend "a fitness for duty exam" at the offices of Dr. Alvin Krass, a psychologist, and Dr. John P. Motley, a psychiatrist. Stouch appeared for the examination on October 16, 2003, and Dr. Motley conducted a clinical interview.

Stouch returned to the Krass/Motley offices on October 27, 2003 and various psychological tests were administered, including a test to measure literacy, a test of Stouch's abstract reasoning ability, the Miale-Holsopple Sentence Completions Test, the Rorschach Psychodiagnostic Test, the Szondi Personality Test, and the Minnesota Multi-phastic Personality Inventory.

Dr. Krass issued a written report dated November 10, 2003, in which he summarized the information provided by Stouch during the clinical interview. Krass stated that:

[t]he impressions obtained during the clinical interview which preceded the formal psychological testing session, were that Mr. Stouch is a person with almost certainly longstanding psychoneurotic personality issues and that a likely more detailed background review of his history would support those impressions. At least during this interview, he gave the impression of being prepared to leave his position as a police officer and to seek a means for obtaining disability benefits which he feels he deserves since he feels that the problems he has, both physical and psychological, are related to his job difficulties.

Dr. Krass also detailed the results of the psychological tests that he administered to Stouch. Krass stated that Stouch's Rorschach findings "were evasive, strongly suggesting that he was not willing to openly represent . . . [his] basic feelings about life or himself." Krass wrote that the results of the Szondi Test indicated that Stouch was "socially isolated." In addition, Stouch's MMPI profile suggested that Stouch "may be representing or denying unfavorable personality traits." Krass concluded that Stouch was not psychologically fit to return to regular police duties.

On December 31, 2003, the IFD terminated Stouch's employment based on Dr. Krass's findings. Stouch sought review of that determination by the Board, which referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) ...


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