Paintball-Shooting Toll Collector Can Go Back to Work, Court Says — (New Jersey Law Journal)

SSRI Ed note: Garden State Parkway toll-taker on antidepressants shoots a van in road-rage incident, loses job, is reinstated with suspension.

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New Jersey Law Journal

Charles Toutant

April 25, 2007

New Jersey’s highest court has ruled that there is no public policy reason against rehiring a Garden State Parkway toll-taker who fired a paintball gun at a vehicle in a fit of road rage.

The state Supreme Court reinstated an arbitrator’s order that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority argued failed to give due consideration to a clear mandate of public policy — namely, the public’s interest in roadway safety.

The court said the public policy exception to arbitration awards is triggered only when the award — not underlying conduct — violates a public policy mandate.

“Courts must not allow the invocation of a convenient talisman — ‘public policy’ — unless circumstances demand it. Otherwise, public policy becomes an excuse to set aside an award, a facile method of substituting judicial for arbitral judgment,” Chief Justice James Zazzali wrote for the unanimous court in New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Local 196, I.F.P.T.E., A-41-06.

By Jason Glassey’s own account, he left work, still in his toll collector’s uniform, after his morning shift one day, feeling stressed and annoyed. On the Garden State Parkway, he came upon a line of cars behind a white van in the left lane. The cars ahead of Glassey managed to pass the van on the right. When Glassey got his chance to pass, he reached for a paintball gun in his vehicle and shot at least four balls of blue paint at the van, striking its front windshield and passenger-side window and paneling.

The van’s driver, Jorge Morales, said he saw Glassey laughing as he sped by. Morales pursued Glassey and eventually flagged down a state trooper, who stopped Glassey as he exited the parkway. He admitted firing the paintballs, saying, “[I]t was stupid. The guy pissed me off because he would not move [to the right].”

In a subsequent statement to police, he said he was under medication for treatment of depression and that on that day, he was experiencing stress over his upcoming wedding.

Glassey pleaded guilty to the disorderly persons offense of interference with transportation and was sentenced to two years’ probation. Cape May Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten also ordered him to undergo psychiatric counseling. However, the judge found the incident did not trigger N.J.S.A. 2C:51-a(a)(2), which requires forfeiture of public office on conviction of an offense touching on one’s employment. The prosecutor concurred.

The Turnpike Authority charged Glassey with violating a section of the rules and regulations contained in the Toll Collector’s Manual, which provides, “Employees must not commit any act which will be prejudicial to the good order or discipline of this Authority.” After a disciplinary hearing, the Director of Toll Collection discharged Glassey, saying, “By your act of aggression, you have demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the personal property and safety of Garden State Parkway customers.”

But under a collective bargaining agreement, Glassey’s case was submitted to arbitration. The arbitrator reinstated him, though imposing an 11-month, unpaid suspension and requiring him to undergo periodic psychiatric evaluations.

The Turnpike Authority sued to vacate the decision. Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Travis Francis affirmed it, but the Appellate Division reversed, ruling that Francis had disregarded the public policy against firing at a moving vehicle.

In Monday’s opinion, the state Supreme Court said the public policy sufficient to vacate an arbitration award must be embodied in legislative enactments, administrative regulations or legal precedents, rather than being “based on amorphous considerations of the common weal.”

Zazzali said that broad application of the public policy exception risks jeopardizing the finality of arbitration and the stability of labor relations.

“The broad view may open the floodgates to substantial litigation in our courts whenever a party seeks to set aside an award by invocation of the public interest,” he wrote.

Although firing paintballs at a moving vehicle violated the public policy against aggressive driving, embodied in the statute criminalizing interference with transportation, Glassey’s reinstatement as a toll collector does not violate any embodiment of public policy, Zazzali said.

“We find that the award reinstating Glassey to his position as a toll collector did not implicate any statutory, regulatory or precedential embodiment of public policy,” the court said. “Our finding, however, does not suggest that reinstatement of an employee who engaged in misconduct can never be found violative of public policy.”

Glassey has completed his 11-month suspension and is ready to return to work, says the lawyer for his labor union. “I think the court really illuminated the whole public policy exception. Public policy is a pretty popular way of going after an arbitration award,” said Leonard Schiro of Mets & Schiro in Woodbridge, N.J.

The Turnpike Authority’s lawyer, Angelo Genova of Genova, Burns & Vernoia in Livingston, N.J., referred questions to Executive Director Michael Lapolla, who said the ruling means “the sanctity of arbitration came before the safety of the people who use the parkway.”

Justices Virginia Long, John Wallace Jr., Roberto Rivera-Soto and Helen Hoens joined in the ruling. Justices Barry Albin and Jaynee LaVecchia did not participate.