On appeal from the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, CSC Docket Nos. 2007-3717 and 2009-718.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: December 21, 2011
Before Judges Cuff and St. John.
Appellant Michael Chromey appeals from a final decision of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) enforcing a settlement reached by the parties before commencement of a hearing in the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on disciplinary charges lodged against Chromey by his employer, respondent North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. Chromey argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ignored his request for an adjournment and the CSC failed to consider his request for an adjournment in its analysis. Chromey also argues that the ALJ should have addressed counsel's motion to withdraw, and he should have been permitted to hire more experienced substitute counsel. He contends there was no meeting of the minds on the settlement before the ALJ. Chromey also asserts that the CSC decision to enforce the settlement is flawed because it failed to recognize the attorney-client conflict and its affect on his acceptance of the settlement, it should have granted his request for an adjournment before rendering its final decision, and his attorney provided misleading information to him.
We have reviewed the record in its entirety and conclude that the decision of the CSC is supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record as a whole, Rule 2:11-3(e)(1)(D), and is consistent with applicable law. We add the following brief comments.
A settlement is essentially a contract which is to be enforced, as written, absent a demonstration of fraud or other compelling circumstances. Nolan v. Lee Ho, 120 N.J. 465, 472 (1990); Honeywell v. Bubb, 130 N.J. Super. 130, 136 (App. Div. 1974). The law highly favors settlement of litigation. Nolan, supra, 120 N.J. at 472; Pascarella v. Bruck, 190 N.J. Super. 118, 124 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 94 N.J. 600 (1983). Settlement of matters pending in the OAL are accorded the same respect. Ocean Cnty. Chapter Inc. of the Izaak Walton League of Am. v. Dep't of Envtl. Prot. & Energy, 303 N.J. Super. 1, 10 (App. Div. 1997). Therefore, a change of heart after accepting a settlement is not a basis to set aside the agreement. See Zuccarelli v. State Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 326 N.J. Super. 372, 381 (App. Div. 1999) (quoting N.J. Mfrs. V. O'Connell, 300 N.J. Super. 1, 7 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 151 N.J. 75 (1997)) (holding that "'[a] party is bound to the contract it made at the time, even if it turns out to be a poor deal'"), certif. denied, 163 N.J. 394 (2000).
Here, when the parties advised the ALJ that a settlement had been reached, the ALJ proceeded to conduct an extremely thorough hearing during which the attorney for respondent read the entire settlement into the record. When the ALJ asked Chromey if he understood the terms of the agreement, he responded, "Yes. I have one question on it. I didn't know one aspect of it, but 99% of it, yes." The ALJ permitted Chromey to discuss the matter with his attorney and he did so. After the off-the-record discussion with his attorney, Chromey informed the ALJ that he discussed his question with his attorney, that he understood the agreement, and that he wished to accept the agreement and abide by its terms. After further questions, including an affirmative response to his satisfaction with the service provided by his attorney, Chromey stated that he accepted the agreement voluntarily.
Based on this record, the ALJ issued an initial decision to enforce the settlement, the CSC reviewed the ALJ initial decision, conducted an independent evaluation of the record, and adopted the ALJ's initial decision to enforce the settlement. We discern no basis to disturb the final decision of the CSC.
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