July 22, 2011
IN THE MATTER OF CRAIG COUGHLIN, BOROUGH OF PARK RIDGE POLICE DEPARTMENT.
On appeal from the Civil Service Commission, Docket No. 2010-298.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted June 22, 2011
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Reisner.
Craig Coughlin, a former captain of the Park Ridge Borough Police Department (Department), appeals from the June 24, 2010 final administrative action of the Civil Service Commission, adopting the findings and conclusion of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Imre Karaszegi, Jr., who upheld the Department's termination of Coughlin. We affirm.
The ALJ made the following factual findings. In October 2008, Lieutenant Joseph Rampolla of the Department was coordinating an upgrade of the Department's software. As he attempted to save a screen shot of the information in Coughlin's office computer, which is listed in the network file server, he found a large amount of sexually explicit images. Rampolla reported this discovery to the Chief of Police. The hard drive of Coughlin's office computer was presented to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Computer Crime Unit for further analysis. That Unit issued a computer forensic analysis report, which concluded that "several visits to adult oriented websites were performed by the user of this computer. These visits include adult dating sites as well as image viewing." The report listed 139 visits to various websites. Rampolla's investigation report noted that the accessed image dates and web history showed a "total of twenty-four separate dates." Rampolla noted that Coughlin was on duty during twenty-three of those dates. Rampolla testified that "hundreds of graphic pornographic images" were on Coughlin's hard drive.
As a part of an administrative investigation, Rampolla interviewed Coughlin with his attorney present. When Coughlin was asked if he visited pornographic websites at his work computer, Coughlin responded "Yes" and also admitted that several of the websites required a paid membership. In addition, to access Coughlin's computer required entry of his user name and password.
Because pornographic images were found in Coughlin's work computer, the Department served him with a preliminary notice of disciplinary action. The preliminary notice charged Coughlin with violations of the Department rules and regulations, and the New Jersey Civil Service Commission Administrative Code Title 4A.
After Officer Robert M. Czech conducted a hearing, he issued a decision concluding that Coughlin had violated a number of rules and regulations including conduct unbecoming a public employee, insubordination, prohibited activity while on duty, misuse of public property, failure to insure compliance with Department standard operating guidelines and other significant cause. The hearing officer recommended termination. The Department accepted the decision and recommendations of the hearing officer, and issued a final notice of disciplinary action removing Coughlin from employment effective January 28, 2009.
Coughlin appealed. The matter was forwarded to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. ALJ Karaszegi found that:
[The Borough's Police Department] has proven, by a preponderance of the competent, credible evidence, the charges of insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, and has given other sufficient cause for disciplinary action, such as failure to conduct himself in an appropriate manner, prohibited activity, responsibilities of superior officers, enforcement of rules and regulations.
ALJ Karaszegi also found that the Department "has met its burden of proving by a preponderance of the credible evidence, the charge of misuse of public property." He recommended removal from employment as the appropriate discipline.
Coughlin filed exceptions to ALJ's initial decision. The Civil Service Commission adopted the findings and conclusion of the ALJ.
On appeal, Coughlin challenges the sanctions imposed and a decision by the ALJ to exclude testimony during an evidentiary hearing. He argues that the discipline imposed on him and "specifically termination from employment, is so disproportionate to the underlying infraction as to render the decision to terminate arbitrary, capricious and/or unreasonable." We disagree.
Our standard of review is limited. We will not upset a determination by the Commission unless it is affirmatively shown that it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or that it lacks fair support in the record as a whole. Karins v. Atlantic City, 152 N.J. 532, 540 (1998).
Moreover, a "strong presumption of reasonableness attaches" to a decision of the Commission. In re Carroll, 339 N.J. Super. 429, 437 (App. Div. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting In re Vey, 272 N.J. Super. 199, 205 (App. Div. 1993) aff'd, 135 N.J. 306 (1994)). We may not substitute our judgment for that of the Commission so long as we are satisfied "that the evidence and the inferences to be drawn therefrom support the agency head's decision." Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 588 (1988). The Appellate Division will review an agency decision de novo only when its finding is "clearly a mistaken one and so plainly unwarranted that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction." Id. at 588-89 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162, 199 A.2d 809 (1964)). In short, we will affirm the Commission's decision if the evidence supports the decision, even if we may question the wisdom of the decision or would have reached a different result.
Here, from our careful review of the record, we note that the Department presented evidence that Coughlin had committed conduct unbecoming a public employee; had been insubordinate; and had violated various Department policies. The ALJ credited this evidence. The Commission evaluated the proofs and found that Coughlin must be removed from his position. Given Coughlin's disciplinary history, that is the appropriate remedy. The Commission's reasonable determination that the Borough's action in removing Coughlin from his position was justified is based on the substantial credible evidence in the record.
Coughlin also argues that the ALJ erred by "refusing to allow [him] to develop the record regarding disparate treatment as the excluded testimony was relevant." We are not persuaded. See R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
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