NJ Court Upholds Tenure Charges Against College Athletic Director But Vacates Termination Decision

New Jersey lawyerIn a recent decision, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court outlined the process for adopting or rejecting the findings of an Administrative Law Judge when seeking to bring tenure charges against a county college employee. The case, In The Matter Of The Tenure Hearing Of Francis Lawrence, Brookdale Community College, involved allegations of conduct unbecoming against a school athletic director.

The Facts of the Case

Francis Lawrence worked for Brookdale Community College (BCC) as the tenured Director of Athletics and Recreation. On June 9, 2011, BCC filed tenure charges against Lawrence, alleging “conduct unbecoming . . . and other just cause” and seeking his removal. The allegations included six violations of BCC’s Code of Ethics.

Following a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that BCC had proven Lawrence violated four provisions of the Code and engaged in unbecoming conduct. However, after considering mitigating and aggravating factors, the judge refused to remove Lawrence, but rather ordered a one-year suspension with credit for time already served under suspension.

BCC’s Board of Trustees subsequently approved a resolution that adopted the ALJ’s findings and conclusions but disagreed with the recommended discipline. The Board concluded that Lawrence was “unfit to perform the duties of his position” based upon violations of “his fiduciary obligations” and “[BCC’s] policies and procedures” and terminated his employment

On appeal, Lawrence alleged that the court’s initial decision was automatically adopted because the Board failed to act within forty-five days of the ALJ’s initial decision as required under the Administrative Procedure Act. He also argued that the Board failed to “review and consider all [the] evidence” adduced at the hearing before rendering its final decision.

The Court’s Decision

The Appellate Division ultimately concluded that there was “no reason to disturb the Board’s finding that Lawrence engaged in conduct unbecoming.” With regard to the 45-day deadline, the court found that the Board complied by approving a resolution removing Lawrence and issuing a written opinion within the applicable time period, even if Lawrence did not receive the decision until later.

However, even if it had not, the court highlighted existing court precedent holding that “[i]f the agency takes substantive action on the . . . recommended decision, but such action is procedurally flawed, the [automatic approval] provision is generally not applied.”

The Appellate Division did reverse the Board’s decision regarding the appropriate discipline to impose and remanded the matter to the Board for further proceedings consistent with the court’s opinion. It concluded that the “Board’s decision reflects inadequate consideration of the record before the ALJ, and that one critical conclusion by the Board was not supported by substantial evidence in the record.”

As further detailed in the opinion, the Board failed to acknowledge the ALJ’s findings that Lawrence lacked any “intent” to violate the school’s Ethics Code and that school officials previously condoned his practices. Finally, the court also noted that, contrary to the Board’s decision, the school had no specific policies and procedures regarding the handling of cash. According, the court ordered the Board to “consider all the evidence adduced before the ALJ, conduct a full analysis and render a complete explanation of [its] decision.”

For more information about this case or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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