“Deemed Adopted” Administrative Law Judge Disciplinary Decision Gets the Same Deference on Appeal as Agency’s Imposition of Discipline or Trial Court’s Sentencing Decision

In re Hendrickson, 235 N.J. 145 (2018).  This first Supreme Court opinion of the current Term is by Justice Albin.  The opening paragraphs of his ruling concisely and completely describe what the case is about, what the result is, and why (though the rest is worth reading as well).  Here are Justice Albin’s words:

 “Under N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(c), when an agency, such as the Civil Service Commission, does not modify or reject the decision of an administrative law judge within a prescribed period,” the decision of the administrative law judge shall be deemed adopted as the final decision of the head of the agency.”  This appeal raises the following question: What is the judicial standard of review when the disciplinary decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ) is deemed adopted by the Civil Service Commission (the Commission) because the political branches did not appoint a sufficient number of Commissioners to form a quorum to review the decision?
In this case, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) terminated from employment Fire Inspector William R.Hendrickson, Jr., for various disciplinary infractions. Hendrickson appealed that decision to the Commission, and the matter was referred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) to be heard as a contested case.  An ALJ conducted a hearing and sustained the disciplinary charges, but rejected termination as the appropriate discipline and instead imposed a six-month suspension.  The ALJ’s decision was then submitted to the Commission.  At the time, the political branches had not appointed the requisite number of Commissioners to constitute a quorum.  Without a quorum, the e Commission could not adopt, reject, or modify the ALJ’s decision within the prescribed period, and therefore that decision was “deemed adopted” as the Commission’s final decision.
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Whether we apply the traditional standard of appellate deference to an agency’s imposition of discipline or the deferential standard of appellate review to a trial court’s sentencing decision, the test remains the same — was the discipline imposed by the ALJ so disproportionate that it shocks the conscience or one’s sense of fairness?  See In re Herrmann, 192 N.J. 19, 28-29 (2007) (appellate review of agency’s disciplinary sanction); State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 364-65 (1984) (appellate review of trial court’s sentence).  No one disputes that this appeal is from a final agency determination.  Because the appellate standard of review is
practically identical whether the ALJ’s deemed-adopted decision is compared to a trial court’s sentencing or an agency’s disciplinary determination, in this instance giving the name “agency deference” to the standard is a sensible approach.
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Because we do not find that the discipline imposed by the ALJ shocks one’s sense of fairness, we vacate the Appellate Division’s judgment terminating Hendrickson and reinstate the six-month suspension.”