The termination of longtime police officer Bijoy Rodriguez, who was accused of feigning disability, has been reversed by an administrative law judge.
Judge Kimberly A. Moss reversed his termination in a mid-December decision. Rodriguez was terminated in July of 2017 for conduct unbecoming of a public employee and other charges. He failed to show for work following a six-month suspension for alleged fraud, according to state records.
Rodriguez’ suspension ended in June. He returned to work for a day and provided a note from the city’s workers compensation doctor Frank Gazzillo that stated he was disabled and could not work.
Police director Jerry Speziale and deputy chief Troy Oswald determined based on Rodriguez’s prior discipline the claim had to be investigated. In mid-June, both the director and the deputy chief conducted surveillance outside of Rodriguez’s home.
Rodriguez appeared not as disabled as he claimed. He was observed opening garage door, entering his jeep, backing the vehicle out of the garage, walking around the front of the car, closing garage door, and loading rear of the jeep without the use of a cane or other assistance.
Speziale captured the photographs from 15-20 feet away from Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was observed picking up his daughter from school. He is shown in photographs opening the vehicle door with both feet on the curb, grabbing his daughter’s hand, squatting to assist her into the car without a cane or walking assistance devices.
When he drove back to his house, Rodriguez exited the vehicle carrying two bottles in his arm that was in a sling and his daughter’s backpack in the other hand.
“Rodriguez showed no signs of pain or discomfort,” testified Oswald to Moss.
A day later, when Rodriguez came into police headquarters for a hearing, his wife was observed assisting him out of the car and he was limping with a cane.
“When Rodriguez arrived at headquarters he was hobbling, walking gingerly, and using a cane. Rodriguez was not hobbling, walking gingerly, or using a cane when the surveillance pictures were taken,” testified Oswald.
The testimony of both Oswald and Speziale are paraphrased in Moss’ decision.
Rodriguez testified he brought the cane with him because the elevator in the building did not work and he knew he had to take the stairs.
Rodriguez was badly injured in an Oct. 24, 2016 incident while assigned to the cellblock. He was told there was a combative prisoner. He and another officer were assigned to do “cell extraction.”
Rodriguez grabbed the prisoner’s arm, but the prisoner resisted. The prisoner did a sweep that caused Rodriguez to strike his neck and arm on the end of the steel bunk in the cell and fall to the floor.
Rodriguez reported he felt like his arm blew up when he struck the steel bunk.
In Dec. 2016, Rodriguez was terminated for a previous incident. He appealed the termination. Both the city and Rodriguez agreed to settle the matter. Speziale testified Rodriguez was given a second chance with a six-month suspension rather than termination.
Rodriguez was undergoing treatment while serving suspension. As his suspension was coming to a close, he told the city’s workers’ compensation doctor that he had to return back to work.
Gazzillo told him he would never go back to full-duty work. He provided Rodriguez a note to present to the department. Rodriguez continues to receive treatment from the city’s doctor and is taking Vicodin. The doctor told him he could carefully drive short distances.
Moss heard testimony from both sides and found the police officer and his doctor — David Weiss — more credible than Speziale and Oswald.
“Their testimony as to what they saw was credible, but the determinations that they made that Rodriguez could return to work did not consider Dr. Gazzillo’s opinion, Rodriguez’s medical records, or the medication that Rodriguez was prescribed,” wrote Moss.
Police brass wanted to place Rodriguez on modified duty.
Moss repeatedly mentioned in her decision that the city’s workers compensation determined Rodriguez could no longer work. “Paterson attempts to substitute the observations of Speziale and Oswald for medical documentation that Rodriguez can return to work,” she wrote.
Rodriguez simultaneously filed for disability retirement in June. He had been working for the city since 2003.
Moss wrote the surveillance photographs do not show Rodriguez doing any strenuous activities. She did not sustain the charges of conduct unbecoming a public employee, incompetency, inefficiency or failure to perform duties; chronic or excessive absenteeism or lateness, and neglect of duty against Rodriguez.
Moss’ initial decision has to be ratified by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission which can either accept or reject the decision.
Municipal officials plan to appeal to the commission to reject the judge’s decision and uphold Rodriguez’s termination.
The city’s attorney Domenick Stampone did not return a call for comment on Tuesday. Rodriguez’s lawyers could not immediately be reached for comments on Wednesday morning.