The state Supreme Court on Monday corrected two lower courts on how to review a police department’s finding that one of its own engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer that warranted his termination.
The officer’s being at a bar while on sick leave, flashing a badge and a deadly weapon and getting into a fight all amount to enough evidence to support the firing of 23-year veteran police Lt. Kelly Ruroede, the justices held in a unanimous, per curiam ruling.
“He had been a superb officer,” the court said in Ruroede v. Hasbrouck Heights, A-95-11. “We can reasonably infer that he had enough experience working under relevant police rules and regulations to avoid physically grabbing someone, displaying his police credentials during such a dispute, and carrying a weapon, all while on sick leave.”
Ruroede was placed on sick leave in October 2007 after passing out and being diagnosed as having a seizure disorder.
A doctor told him and the police department in February 2008 that he could return to work in a month. However, on March 20, 2008, he told Deputy Chief Robert Kroncke, without explanation, that he had to remain on sick leave.
On March 23, 2008, Ruroede and several friends were drinking at Blarney Station, a restaurant and bar in East Rutherford. Ruroede was wearing a cowboy hat. As they were leaving, at around 1:30 a.m., they bumped into two men, one of whom was Capt. George Egbert of the Rutherford Police Department.
Egbert remarked, “Nice hat,” and asked Ruroede where he could buy one. Statements from Egbert, Ruroede and other witnesses conflict, but Ruroede was alleged to have lifted his shirt to display his badge and a weapon. Egbert said it was an automatic pistol. Ruroede said it was a knife. They got into a scuffle and had to be separated.
Afterward, Ruroede underwent two psychological evaluations. One psychologist retained by the department declared him unfit for duty, while his psychologist said any issues could be worked out in therapy.
The department suspended Ruroede without pay. A hearing officer, after taking testimony and reviewing written statements, determined that the psychological evaluation by the borough carried more weight, Ruroede did not have authorization to go to Blarney Station while on sick leave, Ruroede initiated the dispute with Egbert, Ruroede was carrying a firearm even though he was not authorized to do so and that he lied to internal affairs officers about the fight. The hearing officer recommended that Ruroede be fired, and the borough accepted that recommendation.
Ruroede sued the borough and the department in Superior Court, alleging that his due process rights were violated. Judge Estela De La Cruz found Ruroede’s rights were violated on two grounds: on the last day of the proceedings, because of a fee dispute, Ruroede was without counsel and represented himself, and some witnesses, including Egbert, submitted only written statements and did not testify.
De La Cruz remanded the case back to the borough, ordered that Ruroede be put on “inactive” status, and be awarded back pay. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the borough appealed to the Supreme Court.
The court said De La Cruz exceeded her authority under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147 to -151 and that she was allowed only to affirm, reverse or modify the borough’s decision. “The statutory scheme is designed to bring police disciplinary actions to a swift, efficient and final resolution,” the court said. “The Law Division’s remand thwarted those statutory goals.”
De La Cruz should have reviewed the record and made a determination about the merits of the decision, the court said, but rather was “distracted” by the fact that Egbert was not called to testify and that Ruroede concluded the case without a lawyer.
The court said there were no due process violations because Ruroede could have called Egbert as a witness and he chose to represent himself on the last day of the hearing.
The court decided to exercise original jurisdiction under Rule 2:10-5 and review the case on its own.
The court determined that Ruroede was at the bar while on sick leave, he was at the scene of an altercation, he was involved the altercation and he displayed his badge and some sort of deadly weapon.
“It is immaterial whether we accept Egbert’s or Ruroede’s version of how the altercation began,” the court said. “The differences between the two pales in comparison to the bigger picture: the proofs in the record establish that Ruroede acted inappropriately for a person holding the public trust as a police officer.”
Ruroede’s attorney, Albert Wunsch III, says there is little he or his client can do at this point.
“The borough says he is mentally unfit to be a police officer, yet he is able to represent himself,” says Wunsch, who runs a firm in Englewood Cliffs. “He’s deemed mentally unfit and represents himself and that’s due process? It’s a sad state of affairs.”
The borough’s attorney, Dominick Bratti, says officials followed the proper rules and regulations in determining that Ruroede should be fired. “They’ve always felt that they had done that,” says Bratti, of Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer.