An Easy Statutory Interpretation Ruling, With Bonus Analysis of Declaratory Judgment and Joinder Issues

Williams v. Borough of Clayton, 442 N.J. Super. 583 (App. Div. 2015).  N.J.S.A. 40A:14-129 and -130 mandate that an officer seeking promotions to “superior position[s]”in police departments in smaller municipalities (that is, those not designated as “first class” or “second class” municipalities) that are not civil service jurisdictions “shall not be promoted until he has served at least 3 years in such department or force.”  This case presented the issue of whether a candidate for Police Chief is eligible for that position if the candidate has not served as an officer in the department for at least three years.

Plaintiff, a candidate for Police Chief in the Borough of Clayton who had served in the Clayton police department for many years, brought a declaratory judgment action, seeking a ruling that two other candidates, neither of whom had been in the department, were ineligible.  The complaint named only the Borough, not the two other candidates, and those candidates did not intervene in the case.  On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Law Division ruled for plaintiff.  The Borough appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed in an opinion by Judge Sabatino.

Judge Sabatino did not find the merits to be difficult.  The statutory language was “unequivocal,” and “a common sense reading” of the “plain, direct, and unqualified” words dictated a ruling for plaintiff, as the Law Division had concluded.  The panel found “unpersuasive” the Borough’s reliance on two trial level  cases, Miller v. Wayne Tp., 154 N.J. Super. 247 (Law Div. 1977), and Juliano v. Borough of Ocean Gate, 214 N.J. Super. 503 (Law Div. 1987).

The Borough had also made two procedural arguments, though, and Judge Sabatino’s discussion of those issues consumed most of the opinion.  First, the Borough asserted that plaintiff had not shown irreparable harm, and that a demonstration of such harm was necessary in order to win declaratory relief.  Judge Sabatino did not agree.  The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 to -62 (“UDJA”), is to be “liberally construed and administered” to achieve its general purpose of resolving “any question of construction or validity arising under … [a] statute.  N.J.S.A. 2A:16-53.”  There was “an actual, live controversy” here, not a “purely academic” question.  There was also “a substantial public interest to be served by resolving now the merits of the statutory questions presented here through the mechanism of declaratory relief” (emphasis in original).

“[A] demonstration of irreparable harm is not always required to obtain declaratory relief,” and the UDJA contains no such requirement.  Regardless, there was harm that stemmed from “concerns that the Borough must comply with the law.”

The joinder issue likewise did not avail.  Though the UDJA requires that “all persons having or claiming any interest which would be affected by the declaration shall be made parties to the proceeding,” Judge Sabatino noted that plaintiff’s lawsuit was brought only to “assure that the Borough itself would not pursue an appointment process based upon an incorrect conception of the applicable statutes” (emphasis in original), and that the Law Division’s resulting order ran against the Borough only, not against the other applicants for the Police Chief position.

Though it would have been “more prudent and comprehensive” for plaintiff to have named the other applicants, there was no prejudice from plaintiff’s decision not to do so.  The applicants surely were aware of the case, but chose not to intervene, a choice with which Judge Sabatino found no fault, “given the expense and burdens of taking part in litigation of any kind.”  The declaration that plaintiff sought and obtained could be “fairly issued” without requiring the other applicants to participate in the case.

Judge Sabatino was careful to note that the panel had not mandated that plaintiff be appointed Police Chief.  Plaintiff was the only eligible candidate under the procedures used to date.  The Borough could, however, choose to “start the process anew and revise the qualifications to attempt to attract a wider span of internal applicants,” or take certain other steps.