January 19, 2012
IN THE MATTER OF DISCIPLINARY ACTION AGAINST ROBERT RANDOLPH, SERGEANT/ASSISTANT DISTRICT PAROLE SUPERVISOR, STATE OF NEW JERSEY JUVENILE JUSTICE COMMISSION
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1436-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 15, 2011
Before Judges Yannotti and Kennedy
Robert Randolph (Randolph) appeals an order of the trial court dismissing his complaint with prejudice. For reasons which follow, we vacate the trial court's order and remand with instructions to dismiss the complaint without prejudice.
Randolph is employed as an Assistant District Parole Supervisor by the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), a state agency "in, and not of" the Department of Law and Public Safety, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-170(a), subject to the Civil Service Act, N.J.S.A. 11A:1-1 to 12-6. As a result of several investigations, Randolph received four major disciplinary charges between June 11, 2009 and September 16, 2009. The substance of each of the disciplinary charges is not germane to our disposition, but we note that the charges were serious and three of them specified removal from employment as the proposed penalty. Each notice was signed by Felix Mickens, deputy executive director of the JJC.
Randolph filed a "notice of appeal" upon receipt of each disciplinary notice and sought a departmental hearing on the charges pursuant to N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.5(c). He subsequently engaged counsel, obtained discovery and his counsel embarked on a series of "negotiations" with JJC representatives in an effort to resolve the charges without a hearing. The record reveals generally that several departmental hearing dates were adjourned during this period.
Randolph's counsel claimed that as of April 2010, he had negotiated a "settlement" of all the disciplinary charges with a JJC representative authorized to approve such a settlement. Gayle Mazuco, an assistant deputy attorney general and director of the Office of Legal Affairs and Employee Relations, asserted, however, that she had specifically disapproved of any proposed settlement and instructed the JJC representative to so advise Randolph's counsel. It is undisputed that counsel was advised that the settlement was disapproved and by letter dated May 12, 2010, Randolph was told that the departmental hearing on the charges had been scheduled for July 7, 2010.
Believing that a settlement had been reached with the JJC and that the "disapproval" was simply an unenforceable rejection of a binding agreement, Randolph's counsel filed a summary action in the Law Division against the JJC seeking to enforce the alleged settlement. The JJC, represented by the Office of the Attorney General, postponed the departmental hearing at the request of Randolph's counsel and thereafter filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.
On September 29, 2010, the trial judge, apparently employing a summary judgment standard, found there was no enforceable settlement agreement and on the same date issued an order dismissing the verified complaint with prejudice. Randolph thereafter filed this appeal.
At oral argument, we were advised that Randolph is in the process of challenging the disciplinary charges on the administrative level. Counsel for Randolph stated that departmental hearings have been held and the parties are now before the Office of Administrative Law on the substance of the charges.
It is clear that Randolph having detoured from the administrative process by filing a summary action in the Law Division, not only has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies but also has inappropriately invoked jurisdiction in the Law Division. These procedural imperfections cannot be overlooked.
Rule 2:2-2(a)(2) provides that appeals may be taken to the Appellate Division as of right "to review final decisions or actions of any state administrative agency or officer . . . ." The rule then goes on to provide that such review "shall not be maintainable so long as there is available a right of review before any administrative agency or officer, unless the interest of justice requires [.]" A final decision or action of a state administrative agency is one that disposes of all issues among all parties. In re Donohue, 329 N.J. Super. 488, 494 (App. Div. 2000).
Here, the determination by the JJC rejecting Randolph's claim that it had settled the disciplinary charges brought against him is quite obviously not a final decision or action by a state administrative agency. In fact, Randolph himself is in the process of challenging the disciplinary charges on the administrative level. Accordingly, his challenge to the JJC's rejection of settlement is interlocutory.
Further, aside from questions concerning the propriety of challenging the JJC's determination in a summary action in the Law Division - questions which we shall briefly address hereafter - Randolph has failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies. The principle that a party must exhaust available administrative remedies before resorting to the courts is firmly embedded in our jurisprudence. See Central R.R. Co. v. Neeld, 26 N.J. 172, 178, cert. denied, 357 U.S. 928, 78 S. Ct. 1373, 2 L.Ed. 2d 1371 (1958). "If the complaining party prevails before the administrative agency . . . judicial proceedings would have been unnecessary and the court would have intervened needlessly. See L. Jaffe, Judicial Control of Administrative Action, 424-426 (1965). Our policy has been to discourage piecemeal litigation." Garrow v. Elizabeth General Hospital, 79 N.J. 549, 559 (1979). The policy discourages parties' premature resort to judicial intervention in claims that are more appropriately resolved through administrative proceedings. Hernandez v. Overlook Hosp., 149 N.J. 68, 73-74 (1997).
Randolph cannot elect to pursue judicial relief from an interlocutory order of an administrative agency and, at the same time, challenge disciplinary charges through the administrative process. Such action runs squarely afoul of the principle of exhaustion of remedies.
Beyond this, Randolph's detour to the Law Division violates the principle that the Appellate Division maintains exclusive jurisdiction to review state agency actions. Pascucci v. Vagott, 71 N.J. 40, 52 (1976); Sod Farm Assocs. v. Twp. of Springfield, 366 N.J. Super. 116, 131-32 (App. Div. 2004). Under our Constitution, N.J. Const. art. VI, § 5, ¶ 4, and the implementing rules adopted by our Supreme Court, "every proceeding to review the action or inaction of a state administrative agency would be by appeal to the Appellate Division." Central R.R. Co. v. Neeld, supra, 26 N.J. at 184; Johnson v. New Jersey State Parole Board, 131 N.J. Super. 513, 514 (App. Div. 1974), certif. denied, 67 N.J. 94 (1975).
By resorting to an action in the Law Division, Randolph chose to ignore the fact that jurisdiction to review state agency or officer actions inheres only in the Appellate Division. Moreover, as we have indicated, Randolph failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before commencing his Law Division action. The issues raised respecting the alleged settlement can be addressed at the conclusion of the administrative proceedings, should the matter be resolved against Randolph and he appeals.
Accordingly, the trial court's order is vacated and the matter is remanded with instructions to enter an order dismissing the action without prejudice.
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