Appellate Court: Cop’s firing holds

BY JOYCE BLAY Staff Writer

Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD — In a unanimous decision released on June 20, a New Jersey Appellate Court panel has upheld the 2003 job termination of former Lakewood police officer Wayne Truex.

Appellate judges Howard Kestin and Steven Lefelt ruled that a 2004 determination by the Merit System Board affirming the dismissal was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, as alleged by Michael Hobbie, the attorney who is representing Truex.

Guy Ryan, an associate with the firm of Township Attorney Steven Secare, represented Lakewood.

In a unanimous decision rendered Jan. 28, 2004, the five-member Merit System Board rejected a Dec. 16, 2003 recommendation by Administrative Law Judge John Schuster III to reduce the dismissal to a 90-day suspension.

“In sum, the board’s decision that the two instances of misconduct regarding the investigation of the accident warranted discharge was a determination well within its competence, reasonably arrived at in the circumstances for the reasons stated,” read the decision by Kestin and Lefelt. “Accordingly, we affirm.”

Truex was fired on May 12, 2003, following incidents stemming from an Aug. 30, 2002, motor vehicle accident in which he struck and killed a pedestrian, Lester Eldridge, 65, of Elmhurst, N.Y., shortly after beginning his overnight patrol. Eldridge was killed at about 12:30 a.m. as he crossed Clifton Avenue at Courtney Road after leaving a wedding reception.

The Merit System Board decided that Lakewood was justified in firing Truex after he declined to submit to a blood test following the traffic fatality.

No criminal charges were filed against Truex as a result of the accident.

The board did not discuss other charges heard by Schuster, which included lying to prosecutors investigating the accident.

After the accident, Truex told on-scene officers that he had consumed several beers at lunch 14 hours earlier. He denied having made the admission when he was questioned by prosecutors on Sept. 2, 2002.

Truex also refused to obey a written order made by former Police Chief

Michael Lynch to return to work on Nov. 12, 2002, following unauthorized absences in the weeks after the accident. Instead, Truex left word with a dispatcher that he would not be in to work that night because he did not feel ready to resume his duties. He reported for work the following evening.

On Nov. 19, 2002, Deputy Police Chief Wayne LeCompte served Truex with a preliminary notice of disciplinary action, telling him he was terminated and to go home.

The notice was issued on the grounds of incompetence, inefficiency or failure to perform duties, insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, neglect of duty (and) other sufficient cause, and violations of the rules and regulations of the Lakewood Police Department. The township cited the violations as withholding information, unbecoming conduct, unsatisfactory performance, being untruthful and being absent without leave.

Truex requested a departmental hearing. The hearing was delayed with the consent of the township until the following year while Truex sought legal representation. He was officially dismissed on May 12, 2003, but appealed to the Merit System Board three days later.

In November 2002, a notice of claim was filed by Jeffrey Ward, a Matawan attorney representing Stephen Eldridge of Westin, Conn., the surviving brother of the accident victim. The notice of claim stated the intention of Eldridge to sue the township, the police department and Truex for $5 million.

The suit was settled in July 2003 for $295,000, but Eldridge has remained unwavering in his opposition to any reinstatement of the man he holds responsible for his brother’s death.

Eldridge, who is an attorney, filed a friend of the court brief, according to the appellate decision.

In five years, if the 50-year-old Truex is not once more on the Lakewood payroll, his chances of receiving the pension for which he has worked the past two decades may be considerably diminished, according to Matt Golden, a spokesman for the state Department of the Treasury.

“If he gets his job back, then his benefits would continue to accrue,” Golden told the Tri-Town News in a previous interview. “If the firing sticks, the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) board would examine the reasons for the dismissal and determine whether he is eligible to receive [the pension].”

Golden said Truex had 18 years and three months of credited service prior to his discharge. His annual salary for retirement purposes is $72,364. Truex would be eligible to receive 2 percent per year of service — somewhere in the high $20,000’s — if he were reinstated on the police force and permitted to retire at age 55.

If a board for the PFRS were forced to make the determination whether or not his dismissal was justified, Truex could be denied his pension as well as his paycheck.

With his pension as well as his salary at issue, Secare said on June 20 that Truex could sue as high as the U.S. Supreme Court as long as it agreed to hear his grievance.

“The appellate division ruled that Mr. Truex is no longer entitled to his job and we’ll have to see what Mr. Truex does next,” Secare said.

Hobbie did not return a call for comment.