Piscitelli v. City of Garfield Zoning Bd., 237 N.J. 333 (2019)
In Piscitelli v. City of Garfield Zoning Bd., 237 N.J. 333 (2019), Pashman Stein Walder Hayden submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government, successfully arguing that the conflict issues within the Garfield Zoning Board needed to be resolved before the zoning board decision in question could be finalized.
Zoning board members are barred from hearing cases when a personal interest might reasonably be expected to impair their objectivity or independence of judgment under New Jersey law. At issue was the application for development of property filed by members of the Conte family. The board voted in favor of it, against the objections of plaintiffs Vincent and Rose Mary Piscitelli.
At the time, Dr. Kenneth Conte was a member and president of the Garfield Board of Education, which approves school employee appointments, contracts, and salaries. The Piscitellis alleged that five Garfield Zoning Board members were employed or had immediate family members employed by the Board of Education. To try to resolve the apparent conflict, the property owned by trusts bearing the names of Conte and his brother (also a physician) were transferred to a trust benefiting Conte’s nieces and nephew. He was present at the hearing and voiced support for the project.
The Piscitellis objected to the development and claimed zoning board members who were employed or had immediate family members employed by the board of education, or were patients or had immediate family member who were patients of the Conte brothers, should disqualify themselves from the proceedings. No zoning board members recused themselves and the project was approved.
The Piscitellis appealed. The trial court and the Appellate Division found in favor of the zoning board. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, sending the case back to the trial court with instructions that facts be found concerning the board members and their family members. The court instructed the trial court to engage in fact finding regarding:
- Whether there are “meaningful” doctor-patient relationships that should have resulted in affected zoning board members recusing themselves from deciding the application
- Whether Conte, as president or a member of the board of education, had the authority to vote on significant matters relating to the employment of zoning board members or their immediate family members
If the answer to either question is yes, the affected zoning board members had a conflict of interest, and the New Jersey Supreme Court instructed the lower court to vacate the zoning board’s decision. The court stated that a citizen’s right to a fair and impartial tribunal requires a public official to disqualify himself or herself whenever the official has a conflicting interest that may interfere with the impartial performance of his or her duties as a member of the public body.
Justice Albin included this decision in the “Supreme Court Year in Review” panel at the Annual State Bar Conference, making it clear that it was one of the most significant decisions of the 2018-2019 term of the New Jersey Supreme Court.