November 4, 2009
IN THE MATTER OF MICHAEL CURTIN, BATTALION FIRE CHIEF (PM3593G), ELIZABETH.
On appeal from the Merit System Board, New Jersey Department of Personnel, Docket No. 2008-225.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 28, 2009
Before Judges Miniman and Waugh.
Appellant Michael Curtin appeals from the decision of the former Merit System Board (Board), now the New Jersey Civil Service Commission (Commission), denying his appeal of the scoring of his promotional examination, as well as the Commission's decision again denying the appeal following our remand for consideration of supplemental information. We affirm.
Curtin is employed by the Elizabeth Fire Department with the rank of captain. He took the Department of Personnel's examination for the position of battalion fire chief, and received an overall score of 89.270. He was ranked third on the eligible list.*fn1 He appealed the scoring of the oral portions of the examination to the Board. In a five-page decision dated October 11, 2007, the Board denied the appeal.
Curtin appealed to us. On April 14, 2009, in response to Curtin's motion to supplement the record, we remanded the matter temporarily to the Commission, which had replaced the Board as of June 30, 2008,*fn2 for consideration of the arguments raised in Curtin's motion. Following its review of Curtin's additional arguments and documents, the Commission issued its remand decision on August 20, 2009, again denying the appeal. We subsequently permitted Curtin to supplement his brief on appeal.
The general principles governing our role in this appeal are well settled. An appellate court must accord a strong presumption of reasonableness to the decision of an administrative agency. Smith v. Ricci, 89 N.J. 514, 525 (1982); Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L.Ed. 2d 245 (1980). Determinations of administrative agencies must be given great deference. In re Distrib. of Liquid Assets, 116 N.J. 1, 10-11 (2001). While courts are not to act simply as a rubber stamp of an agency's decision, such a decision should only be reversed when "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); Marro v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 57 N.J. Super. 335, 346 (App. Div. 1959).
The burden is on a petitioner, not the Commission, when challenging the administration and scoring of examinations. See N.J.A.C. 4A:4-6.3(b). When reviewing examinations, the Commission "shall decide any appeal on the written record or such other proceeding as the Board deems appropriate." N.J.A.C. 4A:4-6.4(f). "'[T]he judiciary is not disposed . . . to exercise an appellate review of the scoring of the answers . . . .'" Brady v. Dep't of Pers., 149 N.J. 244, 260-61 (1997) (quoting Artaserse v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 37 N.J. Super. 98, 105 (App. Div. 1955)). Our "courts will defer to an agency's grading of a civil-service examination except in the most exceptional of circumstances that disclose a clear abuse of discretion." Id. at 258. We do not "routinely review the contents of civil service examinations . . . [to] determine whether the questions were 'well or poorly answered.'" Ibid. (quoting Lavash v. Kountze, 604 F.2d 103, 105 (1st Cir. 1979)). We "may conduct only a limited review of the reasonableness of a grading system and determine simply whether the testing and grading were clearly arbitrary." Ibid.
Applying these principles, we are satisfied that the Commission's decision on the remand was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. The Commission duly re-evaluated the Board's original decision in light of Curtin's additional arguments and explained its reasons for disagreeing with his position. It is not our role to second-guess the Commission with respect to the scoring of civil-service examinations. This case does not present "the most exceptional of circumstances that disclose a clear abuse of discretion" warranting our interference. The issues raised on appeal do not warrant further discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).