N.J. Supreme Court: Disciplined college officers now eligible for arbitration

The issue was whether a fired campus officer was eligible for arbitration from a state employment body since he didn't work for a municipality


By Kevin Shea
nj.com

NEWARK, N.J. — Officers who work for college and university police departments in New Jersey are indeed eligible for special arbitration in disciplinary matters, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The decision concerned a New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) police officer, Gregory DiGuglielmo, whom the university fired in late 2019 following an arrest that briefly made headlines.

DiGuglielmo filed for the arbitration, but NJIT and their lawyers argued against from day one, saying among other things that campus police officers are not the same as municipal police officers who work for a town.

A state body initially said DiGuglielmo was eligible, but NJIT appealed that decision in Superior Court, and an appellate panel later ruled against the officer in late 2020.

The Supreme Court decision reversed the earlier appeals court decision and reinstates DiGuglielmo’s eligibility for the arbitration. Supreme Court decisions are automatically precedent, so it now cloaks all college or campus officers with the arbitration protection if they find themselves in a disciplinary matter.

DiGuglielmo’s lawyer, Joshua Forsman, said the decision is a victory for his client and and all police in New Jersey. “This will have widespread impact through the state,” he said.

Campus police often “fall through the cracks,” in such matters, Forsman said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

DiGuglielmo now looks forward to continuing to fight for rights, and eventually, “complete vindication,” Forsman said.

NJIT did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.

[PREVIOUS: Should campus and city cops get same treatment? N.J.’s top court to decide in fired officer’s case]

The initial incident occurred on Aug. 26, 2019. DiGuglielmo and another NJIT police officer he was training arrested a teen near the school’s Newark campus following a pursuit over traffic offenses, earlier court decisions say.

A bystander filmed 27 seconds of the arrest, which showed the teen being handcuffed while pinned to the ground, and posted it on Twitter. The post is no longer online.

The university said in a statement a few days later that the incident was “concerning” and “troubling,” and said the two officers were being suspended pending an internal review, but never publicized any other details of the incident - including the officer’s identities.

DiGuglielmo’s name surfaced in legal proceedings; the other officer has not been publicly identified.

It’s unclear if the teen was ever charged with any violations. He was never publicly identified either.

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the matter at the behest of NJIT and found insufficient evidence for an excessive force case.

NJIT police investigated DiGuglielmo and found he violated seven NJIT police department rules and terminated him in December 2019, the appeals decision in 2020 says.

In early January 2020, DiGuglielmo contested his firing through the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC, which handles public employment matters. He requested “special disciplinary arbitration” for police and firefighters in towns not governed by the state’s Civil Service system.

NJIT lawyers fought it on the grounds DiGuglielmo was ineligible for special arbitration, as it was for only for officers in municipal police departments, and NJIT police were part of an institution of higher education.

PERC disagreed, ruling it had jurisdiction over DiGuglielmo’s employment, and the only requirement for him to receive the special arbitration was a timely filing - which he’d done.

The legal battle then went to the court system, where Rutgers University lawyers joined with NJIT lawyers in arguing against special arbitration for campus cops, saying their police departments are autonomous bodies that should not be considered police forces like those serving New Jersey municipalities.

In a late 2020 appeals decision, where NJIT was successful, university lawyers also argued that DiGuglielmo was further ineligible because, according to their finite reading of the state statutes, the officer had not been suspended without pay before the firing.

Although the appeals court sided against DiGuglielmo receiving special arbitration, it found that campus police departments are bonafide “law enforcement” agencies, as their officers have the same powers as their municipal counterparts, and they operate as police forces.

The Monday Supreme Court decision focused only on the special arbitration matter and five justices ruled unanimously that DiGuglielmo is eligible for special arbitration.

They cut through the state statute legalese and found that a “plain reading” revealed nothing that shows the state Legislature meant to preclude college police officers from special arbitration.

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