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In re Barnwell

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 14, 2013



Submitted February 4, 2013

On appeal from the Civil Service Commission, Docket No. 2010-3455.

Law Office of Mark W. Catanzaro, attorneys for appellant Carlos Barnwell (Mr. Catanzaro, on the brief).

Capehart & Scatchard, P.A., attorneys for respondent Burlington County Jail (Robert J. Hagerty, of counsel and on the brief).

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent Civil Service Commission (Todd A. Wigder, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Before Judges Graves and Guadagno.


Carlos Barnwell, a correction sergeant at the Burlington County Jail, appeals from a May 4, 2011 final decision of the Civil Service Commission (the Commission). The Commission upheld the Burlington County Jail's decision to demote Barnwell to his current position, following his failure to properly perform his duties as a correction lieutenant. We affirm.

On January 16, 2010, Barnwell was working the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift at the Burlington County Jail as a correction lieutenant, where he had worked since 1993. At approximately 10:00 p.m., Sergeant Phillip Morris told Barnwell that he spoke with inmate Henry Weaver, who complained of "shortness of breath" and "chest pains." Barnwell authorized Weaver to see the nurse practitioner. Weaver told the nurse he had been "assaulted by an officer, slammed on the . . . floor" and had "his head stomped five to six times."

According to Barnwell, he instructed Morris to write an incident report and to put a copy "in the Captain's packet." However, Barnwell conceded he never verified that Morris did so, and he acknowledged, "I should have, but I didn't." He explained the incident occurred toward the end of his shift and he wanted to "get out of there."

The next day, Sergeant Francisco Grupico wrote a report to the shift captain, stating that during the shift change at 11:00 p.m. on January 16, 2010, Morris told him that inmate Weaver said "he was assaulted by seven officers on his shift. Sgt. Morris said the inmate was seen and cleared by the staff nurse." Grupico also reported that Weaver told him "he was beaten up by seven officers on the earlier shift" and Weaver gave Grupico a note:

On the note from inmate Weaver he stated after jokes were made officers came to his cell and had his roommate . . . step out of the room as the seven officers assaulted him inside his cell. Inmate Weaver stated that he was pinned to the ground and his head slammed several times to the ground and stepped on. Inmate Weaver also stated that he was taken to see the nurse and was threatened by the officers. Inmate Weaver named seven [officers] on his paper.

At Grupico's request, the nurse also filed an incident report. She stated Weaver was treated for scratches on his back and a small abrasion on his left elbow, and he complained of chest pain and trouble breathing. The report also stated she offered Weaver protective custody, but he refused. In an addendum to the report, the nurse wrote that Weaver said he had an altercation with seven officers in his cell.

Internal Affairs (IA) was assigned to investigate the incident. In his initial response to IA dated January 19, 2010, Barnwell stated, "I was asked several questions by IA concerning an incident that happen[ed] on 1-16-2010. I told IA that I was not aware of any alleged incident that happen[ed]."

When Barnwell was again questioned by IA on January 21, 2010, he admitted that he did not inform the shift commander of the incident. In addition, when Barnwell was asked whether he observed "any bruises or scratches" on Weaver, he answered, "No."

IA issued a summary of its investigation to Captain Lawrence Artis on January 22, 2010. The report stated that a review of surveillance videos showed:

Sergeant P. Ptaszenski standing in front of [Weaver's cell] watching the actions of the sergeants and corrections officers. Approximately eight minutes later Sergeant P. Ptaszenski and all other correctional staff were observed leaving the area.
Inmate Weaver was later observed on the video at approximately 2058 hours lifting his shirt and showing [the nurse] his injuries during medication rounds. At approximately 2205 hours Inmate Weaver was then observed in the clinic receiving medical treatment for his injuries.
On January 19, 2010, Inmate H. Weaver was interviewed by the [IA] Department [and] did confirm that he was assaulted by Sergeant Phillip Morris [and six other officers]. At this time Inmate H. Weaver was asked to show any visible marks or injuries related to the assault. Inmate H. Weaver did show marks on his body that [were] consistent to the allegations he made. Inmate H. Weaver was then taken to the clinic where photographs were taken of his injuries.
. . . .
Lieutenant C. Barnwell failed to investigate the complaint that Inmate H. Weaver made about the correctional staff assaulting him. Lieutenant C. Barnwell instructed Sergeant P. Morris to return the inmate to the house unit, after he was advised the inmate had visual marks of injuries.

A preliminary notice of disciplinary action was issued to Barnwell on January 25, 2010, charging him with incompetency, inefficiency, or failure to perform duties, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(1); conduct unbecoming a public employee, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(6); neglect of duty, N.J.A.C. 4A:2-2.3(a)(7); and other violations of the Standard Operating Policies and Procedures Manual for the Burlington County Detention Facility. The preliminary notice specified:

On 1/16/10, while in uniform and performance of duties as Shift Commander Correction Lt. during 3-11 shift, you had knowledge that inmate Henry Weaver made allegations that he was assaulted by 7 staff members and inmate was in the clinic receiving treatment for sustained injuries. You neglected your duty to collect and review reports and conduct investigation with recommendations. You neglected to report incident and made false or misleading statements to [IA in] an attempt to hinder official investigation. You neglected to supervise your subordinates assigned under you command and responsibility. Your conduct is unbecoming a Law Enforcement Officer and threatens institutional safety and security.

Barnwell was suspended without pay on January 27, 2010, and all charges were sustained following a departmental hearing on April 14, 2010.

A final notice of disciplinary action was issued on April 28, 2010, demoting Barnwell from his position as lieutenant to the position of sergeant effective May 2, 2010. Barnwell appealed to the Merit System Board on May 3, 2010, and the matter was heard by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on November 10, 2010.

Robert Clugsten, an IA investigator, and Artis both testified at the hearing that no reports were turned in on January 16, 2010, regarding the assault. Barnwell testified on his own behalf and acknowledged he went to the clinic to "see what inmate Weaver actually looked like" and observed he "didn't look in distress, didn't look beat up." Barnwell also testified it was his "gut feeling that [Weaver] was lying."

On cross-examination, Barnwell stated, "[I]n 20/20 hindsight, yeah, I should have wrote a report. I dropped the ball on that." When Barnwell was asked whether or not he carried out "the responsibilities and functions of a correction lieutenant to a satisfactory level" on January 16, 2010, he replied, "Not like I normally would have, no."

In an written decision dated February 4, 2011, the ALJ found Barnwell was guilty of the charges by a preponderance of the evidence. The ALJ also determined Barnwell "failed to exhibit the required qualities in order to maintain the position of correction lieutenant" and his demotion was appropriate.

Following a de novo review, the Commission adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions, and determined "the action of the appointing authority in demoting [Barnwell] was justified." On appeal, Barnwell argues the Commission's decision should be reversed because it is "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."

"Courts have only a limited role to play in reviewing the actions of other branches of government. In light of the executive function of administrative agencies, judicial capacity to review administrative actions is severely limited." George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994) (citing Gloucester Cnty. Welfare Bd. v. State Civil Serv. Comm'n, 93 N.J. 384, 390 (1983)). "Ordinarily, an appellate court will reverse the decision of [an] administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980) (citing Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963)). In determining whether an agency action is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, we consider: (1) whether the agency followed the law; (2) whether the decision is supported by substantial credible evidence in the record; and (3) whether the agency clearly erred in reaching its conclusion. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011) (citing In re Carter, 191 N.J. 474, 486 (2007)).

When reviewing agency actions, we "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). Therefore, if substantial credible evidence supports an agency's conclusion, we may not substitute our own judgment for the agency's even though we may have reached a different result. Ibid. This deferential standard also applies to our review of disciplinary sanctions. Stallworth, supra, 208 N.J. at 194.

The test for reviewing an administrative sanction is "whether such punishment is 'so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness.'" In re Polk License Revocation, 90 N.J. 550, 578 (1982) (quoting Pell v. Bd. of Educ., 313 N.E.2d 321, 327 (1974)). "[C]ourts should take care not to substitute their own views of whether a particular penalty is correct for those of the body charged with making that decision." Carter, supra, 191 N.J. at 486 (citing In re License Issued to Zahl, 186 N.J. 341, 353-54 (2006)).

In this case, we conclude there is no basis to intervene. The record fully supports the ALJ's findings and conclusions, which were adopted by the Commission, and the penalty imposed is entirely appropriate in light of Barnwell's misconduct.


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