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Appellate Division Decides Arbitrability Issue Involving Former School District Employees

By on March 17, 2016 in Labor & Employment with 0 Comments

Collective negotiated agreements (“CNAs”) delineate the terms and conditions of employment for many, if not the majority, of board of education employees.  They often dictate an employee’s rights and privileges, hours, salary, benefits, procedures for the termination of employment, and grievance procedures for challenging a board’s interpretation or application of the CNA.  On February 2, 2016, the Appellate Division in Egg Harbor Township Board of Education v. Egg Harbor Township Education Association, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 205 (App. Div. 2016) addressed the issue of whether the Egg Harbor Township Board of Education’s (“Board”) actions resulting in the discontinuation of employment of two members belonging to the Egg Harbor Township Education Association (“Association”) must be arbitrated.

L.D. was non-tenured teacher’s aide whose contract was slated to end on June 30, 2012.  On May 10, 2012, L.D. and the Board’s president executed a written contract for re-employment for the 2012-2013 school year.  However, on July 9, 2012, the Board rescinded the employment contract, purportedly due to allegations surfacing after May 10, 2012 that L.D. verbally and physically assaulted students in a classroom.  L.D. took no further action after her employment contract was rescinded.  Y.J. was a non-tenured custodian employed by the Board for the 2011-2012 school year.  The Superintendent non-renewed Y.J. for the 2012-2013 school year.  As a result, Y.J. requested and appeared before the Board, which accepted the Superintendent’s determination.  Y.J. did not appeal this decision to the Commissioner of Education.

The Association, on behalf of both employees, demanded arbitration of the two grievances pursuant to the CNA.  In response, the Board sought the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (“PERC”) to restrain arbitration of its decision not to renew L.D. and Y.J.’s employment contracts asserting that these actions were non-negotiable managerial prerogatives.  The Board also relied on language from the operating CNA which limited arbitration to grievances “based upon an allegation that there has been a violation of the express written terms of the locally negotiated [CNA].”  PERC ultimately determined that whether the Board agreed to arbitrate disputes involving the non-renewal of its aides and custodians was beyond the scope of its jurisdiction.  As a result, the Board sought judicial review by the New Jersey Superior Court of whether the CNA allowed for arbitration of the grievances.  Relying on the general presumption of arbitrability, the trial judge found that both L.D. and Y.J.’s issues must be arbitrated.

However, the Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court’s reasoning and ultimately found that the Board’s decision regarding L.D. requires arbitration but not for Y.J.  Specifically, the Appellate Division rejected the Board’s argument that L.D. was non-renewed.  The Board’s revocation of the employment contract for the following school year, which had been previously offered to and accepted by Y.J., was interpreted as disciplinary action resulting in dismissal – action explicitly subject to the grievance procedure of the CNA.  Accordingly, arbitration of L.D.’s grievance must proceed.  In contrast, the Board’s action relating to Y.J. was purely a non-renewal and did not arise from a grievable disciplinary determination, which precludes arbitration.

Boards of education should be cognizant of whether the governing CNA expressly omits a mandate for a non-renewal determination to be based on just cause or a provision conferring upon an employee the right to grieve a non-renewal decision.  When seeking to non-renew an employee, which is generally a managerial determination, superintendents and boards of education should make sure that the action taken against the employee in question is purely a non-renewal and not subject to interpretation as a disciplinary action resulting in termination.

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Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev

About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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