New Jersey Courts Need Not Necessarily Consider Progressive Discipline

Dana Register was a corrections officer for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and was assigned to the Mountainview Correctional Facility. On September 9, 2013, the DOC’s Special Investigations Division (SID) received an anonymous note, which stated: “SCO Register is messing with an inmate [T.W.] in the Full Minimum Unit. She is getting out of hand. She writes him letters and mails them from a P.O. Box in Easton, Pennsylvania.”

That day, SID began an investigation. A “mail cover” was implemented on inmate T.W.’s incoming and outgoing mail. A review of T.W.’s visitors list found none, nor were any phone calls documented. Nevertheless, from February through September 2013, the investigation revealed that T.W. was receiving letters from one “Janelle Lewis.” These letters contained romantic language, such as “I am unable to show you the depth of my love for obvious reasons,” and “As I see you with so, so much love in your eyes for me.” A search for a Janelle Lewis from the Easton return address produced no results.

A review of T.W.’s inmate trust account statement revealed T.W. received money orders from one Janelle Lewis at the same Easton, PA address, totaling $1,050. T.W.’s trust account statement showed deposits totaling $450 received from one Jamiliah Williams from Newark. A search of the Newark return address for the deposits yielded negative results; however, Register’s previous address was directly across the street from the fictitious Newark address. T.W. responded to “Janelle Lewis” by mailing letters to a P.O. Box in Easton, PA. The U.S. Postal Service advised SID that the box was registered, as of February 8, 2013, to Register, who had requested authorization for use by a 12-year-old daughter, “Janelle Lewis.” SID subsequently determined Register had no such daughter.

Register admitted that she knew T.W., and that she wrote the letters under the name Janelle Lewis and used the P.O. Box in Easton so T.W. could receive the mail. However, she insisted the communications were merely friendly and denied there was any physical or sexual contact between them. She stated that she intended to continue a relationship with T.W. once he completed his sentence. She denied sending the money to T.W.’s trust account, and could not explain the money orders. She subsequently stated she ceased communicating with T.W. in August 2013, and had no intention to resume the connection; however, T.W. continued to receive letters that gave no indication the relationship had ended.

When DOC terminated Register, she challenged the decision through the court system. Register’s main argument was since she and T.W. never had physical or sexual contact, the principles of progressive discipline mandated a penalty less than termination.

The Court rejected Register’s contentions and upheld her discharge. The Court found that in the New Jersey system of disciplinary civil service appeals, there was no reason for courts to consider the principles of progressive discipline: “The deferential standard of review owed to administrative agencies applies in the review of disciplinary sanctions imposed by those agencies. A reviewing court should alter a sanction imposed by an administrative agency only when necessary to bring the agency’s action into conformity with its delegated authority. The test is whether the punishment is so disproportionate to the offense, in light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.

“In this case, Register participated in a highly inappropriate relationship with an inmate over an extended period of time, and went to great lengths to conceal the relationship. Moreover, the record is far from clear that the relationship has ended. We conclude the penalty of dismissal is not disproportionate to the offense, nor is it shocking to the judicial conscience.”

In re Register, 2016 WL 1418127 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2016).