NJ Appeals Court Interprets Police Promotion Statute

In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court interpreted several public employment statutes that impose hiring and promotional restrictions upon police departments in smaller New Jersey cities that are not of the “first class” or “second class” in population and which are not civil service jurisdictions. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-129 and -130, police promotions to “superior position[s]” within such police departments are restricted to officers who have served in those departments for at least three years. NJ Appeals Court Interprets Police Promotion Statute

The Facts of the Case

In Williams v. Borough of Clayton, the specific question before the appeals court was whether an applicant for Police Chief in a municipality subject to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-129 and -130  is statutorily eligible for that appointment if he or she has not served as an officer within that police department for three years.

In 2014, the Borough of Clayton sought to appoint a new Police Chief. Plaintiff Stanley Williams applied for the position. Of the three applicants considered for Police Chief, Williams was the only candidate to have served as a police officer in the Borough, having worked as a patrol officer for 21 years. Prior to the start of the formal hiring process, the plaintiff filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs seeking declaratory and permanent injunctive relief. His complaint alleged that the other two candidates were statutorily ineligible to be appointed Police Chief, given their lack of experience within the Borough’s police force.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. After hearing oral argument, the Court granted plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment and declaratory relief. The court found that legislative history of the statutes supported plaintiff’s position that the municipality must “pick somebody from the Department,” and that in-house applicants should “not be competing with some other [potentially] very qualified candidates outside the Department.”

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order issuing declaratory relief to the applicant, ruling that where one or more qualified applicants meet the statutory requirements set forth in N.J.S.A. 40A:14-129 and -130, the Police Chief must be appointed from within the ranks of the municipality’s current police force. 

The Court set forth that “[a] common sense reading of these statutes dictates that any candidate promoted to a superior position (here, the Chief of Police) must currently work in the municipality’s police department and have three years of experience on the force as a police officer… [t]he statutory language is plain, direct, and unqualified.”

In its opinion, the Appellate Division also noted that the trial court’s order does not require the Borough to appoint plaintiff. Rather, it may choose to re-advertise the position or pursue other options not contrary to the statutes.

For more information about the court’s decision, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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