In the Matter of Oladipo, N.J. Super. App. Div. ALJ Decision reviewed by Appellate Division
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In this case we discuss the Appellate Division’s ability to review any Administrate Law Judge’s decision. The case law on this issue is very clear, yet every once in a while, the court has to address this again. The case is about discipline/firing a state employee who appealed a disciplinary decision/firing while he was working at a state facility based on two direct witnesses who testified at the ALJ hearing.
Two eyewitnesses – Oladipo’s coworkers —testified they heard a commotion in the patient’s room, and responded to see a milk carton thrown at Oladipo as he exited the room. Oladipo re-entered the room; despite efforts by both coworkers to have him leave because he and the patient were yelling at each other, he refused to leave. The patient pushed Oladipo in the chest. Although both coworkers moved in and stood on either side of the patient to keep the patient and Oladipo separated, Oladipo forcefully punched the patient in the abdomen. Oladipo had to be physically removed from the room by other staff. The ALJ also watched videotaped footage of the hallway outside the patient’s room and listened to the testimony of both coworkers who, as the ALJ said, “describ[ed] their movements and those of other staff” and “correlated the contents of the tape to their testimony.” The ALJ also heard medical testimony about the patient’s abdominal contusion, and testimony from instructional and managerial staff that staff are never to strike a patient.
The ALJ found the two coworkers to be credible, observing they “were direct and articulate in their testimony and corroborated the other’s version of events.” She described their recount of the incident as “coherent, linear and believable from their testimony and in light of the other corroborating evidence in the record,” including the videotape footage. She found Oladipo’s testimony “not as credible” because his contentions were uncorroborated and the videotape footage was “more consistent” with the coworkers’ version than his.
Appellate Division’s Standard of review of the Administrative Law Judge’s ruling. We recognize our “‘limited role’ in the review of [Commission] decisions.” In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579 (1980)). “An appellate court affords a ‘strong presumption of reasonableness’ to an administrativeagency’s exercise of its statutorily delegated responsibilities.” Lavezzi v. State, 219 N.J. 163, 171 (2014) (quoting City of Newark v. Nat. Res. Council, Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., 82 N.J. 530, 539 (1980)). “In order to reverse an agency’s judgment, an appellate court must find the agency’s decision to be ‘arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, or . . . not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'” Stallworth, 208 N.J. at 194 (quoting Henry, 81 N.J. at 579-80) (alteration in original)). [Matter of Restrepo, Dept. of Corrections, 449 N.J. Super. 409, 417 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 230 N.J. 574 (2017). As a general rule, the reviewing court should give “due the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility . . . and . . . [give] due regard also to the agency’s expertise where such expertise is a pertinent factor.” Clowes v. Terminix Int’l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 587 (1988) (alterations in original) (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965)). Adhering to that limited review standard, we conclude the ALJ’s findings were well-supported by the record, and that her decision was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.