October 2, 2012
SABINO VALDES, APPELLANT,
ALICIA MOREJON, UNION CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION HUDSON COUNTY, RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the School Ethics Commission, New Jersey Department of Education, Docket No. C-39-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued May 23, 2012 -
Before Judges Waugh and St. John.
Appellant Sabino Valdes appeals from the February 23, 2011 decision of the New Jersey School Ethics Commission (Ethics Commission) dismissing his complaint as frivolous, and sanctioning him $500. Following our review of the arguments advanced on appeal, in light of the record and applicable law, we affirm.
The following pertinent facts and circumstances emerged from the administrative record. Valdes was an employee of the Union City Board of Education (Board), who was terminated from his position by the Board.
On November 17, 2010, Valdes filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission against Board member Alicia Morejon. He alleged that Morejon misrepresented her residence on her personal financial disclosure statement and suggested she was not a resident of Union City. Valdes contended that Morejon actually resided on Center Street in Ridgefield.
Each Board member must file an annual personal financial disclosure statement. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-25. As part of the statement, the Board member must provide his or her home address. A Board member who knowingly files a statement with false information is subject to penalty. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-25(3)(c).
On December 3, 2010, Valdes filed an amended complaint which stated that Morejon had purchased a home in Ridgefield on September 26, 2001. On the same day, Valdes filed a second amended complaint correcting that statement and admitting that Morejon had actually conveyed the Ridgefield property on September 26, rather than purchasing it. However, Valdes continued to contend that the home in Ridgefield was Morejon's domicile. He proffered as evidence a document from the Ridgefield Tax Assessor's office which described the home as a "mother/daughter" property.
On December 21, 2010, Morejon filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Valdes had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. She further asserted that Valdes' complaint was frivolous. Valdes opposed Morejon's motion but did not offer further proof that Morejon's residence was in Ridgefield.
In arriving at its decision, the Ethics Commission reviewed the standard for a frivolous complaint which provides:
"Frivolous complaint" means a complaint determined by the Commission to be either:
1. Commenced, used or continued in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury; or
2. One which the complainant knew, or should have known, was without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law. [N.J.A.C. 6A:28-1.2.]
The Ethics Commission appropriately determined that it need only find that one prong is applicable to support a finding of a violation. It also noted that it should consider the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a complaint meets the standard of a frivolous complaint. It determined that "on the basis of the record before it, the Commission finds that this complaint satisfies both prongs of the standard."
After reviewing the facts set forth in Valdes' complaint as amended and the applicable law, the Ethics Commission determined:
[T]hat although the complainant may not have commenced this proceeding in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, the lay or malicious injury, once he became aware that his facts were incorrect, i.e., that the respondent had actually conveyed the Ridgefield property to her daughter in September 2001, as he acknowledged in his second amendment, he should have notified the Commission that he did not wish to proceed with the complaint. [Emphasis in original.]
The Ethics Commission found that Valdes continued to assert that Morejon's designation of the Union City address on her disclosure statements was a misrepresentation "based solely on the categorization of the Ridgefield address as 'a Mother/Daughter'" property by the Tax Assessor's office. It further determined that Valdes continued the action in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment or malicious injury to Morejon. It made this finding based on the fact that Valdes knew or should have known that his complaint was without any reasonable basis in law or equity since he was unable to set forth any facts to support a claim of violation.
For these reasons, the Ethics Commission dismissed Valdes' complaint on the ground that it was frivolous and imposed a $500 fine. It is from that decision that Valdes appeals.
On appeal, Valdes raises the following issues:
THE COMMISSION CANNOT SAY THAT ITS DECISION WAS SO OPEN AND SHUT THAT MY COMPLAINT CAN BE SAID TO HAVE BEEN FILED SOLELY FOR THE PURPOSE OF HARASSMENT, DELAY OR MALICIOUS INJURY.
THE COMMISSION FILED AN AMENDED STATEMENT INCLUSIVE OF EVIDENCE WHICH IS NOT PART OF THE RECORD BELOW.
THE COMMISSION DID NOT ESTABLISH THAT MY ACTION IN THIS MATTER WAS FRIVOLOUS UNDER THE PRONGS ENUNCIATED IN N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1(b)(1)-(2).
THE STATE IS USING BIAS TO SHIELD POSSIBLE WRONGDOING BY UNION CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION EMPLOYEES.
The Ethics Commission is responsible for resolving complaints alleging unethical conduct by members of local school boards. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29. Pursuant to the School Ethics Act, if a complaint has been filed against a member of a local school board, the Ethics Commission: "[s]hall determine whether the conduct complained of constitutes a violation of . . . th[e] Act or the code of ethics, or whether the complaint should be dismissed." N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(c). The Ethics Commission's decision shall be in writing and shall state its findings of fact and conclusions of law. Ibid.
As charged in his complaint, Valdes alleged that Morejon violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-25(c). This statute provides:
A school official who fails to file a statement or who files a statement containing information which the school official knows to be false shall be subject to reprimand, censure, suspension, or removal pursuant to the procedures established in section 9 of P.L.1991, c.393 (C.18A:12-29). Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to prevent or limit criminal prosecution. [N.J.S.A. 18A:12-25(c).] We turn to Valdes' claims which, in effect, assert that the Ethics Commission's final agency decision was arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. In evaluating his claims, we must be mindful that the scope of appellate review with respect to a final agency decision is limited. Aqua Beach Condo. Ass'n v. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 186 N.J. 5, 15-16 (2006). "Appellate courts must defer to an agency's expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field." Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992). Moreover, "a court may not substitute its own judgment for the agency's even though the court might have reached a different result." Ibid.
It is well settled that an agency decision will be upheld on appeal unless it is shown to be "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or that it lacked fair support in the evidence[.]" Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963). "The burden of demonstrating that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the [party] challenging the administrative action." In re Arenas, 385 N.J. Super. 440, 443-44 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 219 (2006); McGowan v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 347 N.J. Super. 544, 563 (App. Div. 2002); Barone v. Dep't of Human Servs., 210 N.J. Super. 276, 285 (App. Div. 1986), aff'd, 107 N.J. 355 (1987).
The factual findings by the Ethics Commission are amply supported by the record. The Ethics Commission's determination that Valdes continued prosecuting the complaint after he knew or should have known that it lacked reasonable basis in law or equity, as he was unable to set forth any facts to support a claim of violation, and its finding that he did so solely for the purpose of harassment or malicious injury to Morejon, is neither arbitrary nor capricious. Additionally, there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the determination that the complaint was frivolous.
We defer to the Ethics Commission's determination to impose a $500 sanction and, under the circumstances, do not perceive that sanction to be unjust or excessive. See In re Herrmann, 192 N.J. 19, 28-29 (2007) (instructing that a reviewing court should not alter a sanction imposed by an administrative agency unless it is "shocking" to the court's sense of fairness); see also In re Polk, 90 N.J. 550, 578 (1982). The Commission has noted that following his termination Valdes had repeatedly filed complaints that were all dismissed as unfounded. The Commission's determination to impose a sanction when faced with this action, determined to be vexatious and frivolous, was not an abuse of its permitted discretion.
To the extent we have not discussed any issue raised in this appeal, we are satisfied that it lacks sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
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