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When is police discipline, well...discipline?

In the world of labor law, written and verbal reprimands have always held a murky place in the disciplinary scale. On the one hand, no one wants to be written up. And reprimands can be used to show progressive discipline that will eventually lead to lost time (e.g. suspensions, fines or worse). But, in New Jersey public employment, where unions have enough resources to fight even minor forms of discipline, courts and arbitrators are struggling to determine what the rules are to contest something as simple as a reprimand.

At least with respect to New Jersey law enforcement, the rights of officers to appeal reprimands appear to be narrowing.

In Upchurch v. City of Orange Township, et al., Dkt. A-59210-14T3 (App. Div. June 12, 2017), the Appellate Division today held that written reprimands are exempt from the "45-day rule". The 45-day Rule comes from N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147. It requires that police departments file discipline against an officer within 45 days from the day that the department "obtained sufficient information" regarding the police officer's alleged infraction. The statute applies to officers who face suspension, removal, fine or reduction in rank. Per today's unpublished decision, it does not apply to officers who find themselves on the wrong end of a written reprimand.

Although unreported, today's decision may have ramifications beyond the so-called 45-day rule. This is because the statute in question is the basis for police appeals in general, including the right to file an appeal of a municipal disciplinary decision in the New Jersey Superior Court. N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 to -151. If the 45-day rule does not apply to written reprimands, then it would stand to reason nothing in the statute does.

In other words, if a police officer wishes to challenge a timely filed written reprimand in court, there is a good chance the court will dismiss the case because written reprimands cannot form the basis of a statutory challenge. See Burns v. Borough of Glassboro, Dkt. A-2085-12T2, slip op. at *9-10 (App. Div. Mar. 11, 2014) (unreported) (holding that a police officer may not appeal a written reprimand to the Superior Court under the relevant statutes).

Stay tuned to this blog for further developments.

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