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Ralph Cioffi v. City of Jersey City

October 18, 2011

RALPH CIOFFI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CITY OF JERSEY CITY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-2770-10.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued September 21, 2011

Before Judges Axelrad and Sapp-Peterson.

Plaintiff appeals the dismissal of his complaint seeking enforcement of an Intergovernmental Transfer Agreement (ITA) and compensatory damages as a result of defendant's failure to honor the agreement. The Law Division judge found the action was barred by the six-year statute of limitations governing contract actions. We affirm.

Plaintiff was employed by Hudson County (County) as a sheriff's officer. Prior to his employment as a sheriff's officer, he was a County police officer. The Sheriff's Department absorbed the County police in 1996. Plaintiff apparently initiated a civil suit against the County in 1998. Negotiations between the parties during the litigation resulted in the execution of an ITA. Under the ITA, plaintiff would be transferred from the County as a sheriff's officer to the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) in the requested title of police officer, effective July 11, 2003. The ITA was signed by the appropriate officials from the County and JCPD.

The ITA required approval from the Department of Personnel (DOP). By correspondence dated June 23, 2003, DOP notified the County that pursuant to its review of the job specifications for sheriff's officer and police officer, it did not consider the titles "as being compatible" and could not process the County's request for an intergovernmental transfer. The letter further advised that the County could seek appropriate relief from its decision.

On July 10, the JCPD notified plaintiff that it had postponed its decision to hire him as a police officer under the ITA and that "[u]pon completion of a background check and pre-employment requirements [his] application will be reconsidered." Plaintiff claims that he resigned his position as a sheriff's officer "on or about July 10, 2003."

According to plaintiff, on May 24, 2004, he met with Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who advised him that the ITA would be effectuated and that he would "soon" begin his new position. Based upon the mayor's representation, plaintiff contends he was led to reasonably believe that he would be sworn in as a police officer on or soon after May 24, 2004. However, he was never appointed to the position. Mayor Cunningham apparently died the day after he met with plaintiff.

On May 20, 2010, more than six years after being notified that the JCPD was postponing its decision to appoint him as a police officer, plaintiff filed his complaint in the Law Division alleging breach of contract, palpably unreasonable conduct, breach of an oral promise creating a contract, breach of express or implied contract, and promissory and/or equitable estoppel. In lieu of an answer, defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e). It argued that there was no breach of contract, the mayor's promise was not enforceable and did not create a contract, neither promissory nor equitable estoppel were applicable in the absence of an enforceable contract, and the action was barred by the six-year statute of limitations attributable to contract claims.

Plaintiff opposed the motion and submitted a certification in support of his opposition. He urged the court could not resolve the issues based upon the face of the pleadings and therefore contended the motion should be denied. In addition, plaintiff argued the pleadings were such that further discovery was warranted on his breach of contract and estoppel claims, and the action was not barred by the statute of limitations.

In granting the motion, Judge Hector Velazquez first observed it was undisputed that the ITA was subject to DOP approval and all parties were aware of this condition prior to plaintiff's appointment to the position. Citing Allstate Redevelopment Corporation v. Summit Associates, 206 N.J. Super. 318, 324 (App. Div. 1985), the judge reasoned that no liability could be imposed upon defendant based upon a promise of employment that was subject to a condition precedent "that obviously never happened."

Next, the judge concluded that any promise Mayor Cunningham may have made was also unenforceable since, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 4:69(a), the mayor is not the appointing authority and "could not offer employment to p[ro]spective police officer[s]." The judge further reasoned:

[E]ven if the [c]court would agree that the mayor may have the authority to propose an employment contract[,] there is no evidence that in this instance a conversation at a social event with the plaintiff would in any way constitute a ...


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