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Appellate Division Upholds Arbitrator’s Decision to Limit Increment Withholding

By on February 11, 2019 in Labor & Employment with 0 Comments

On January 28, 2019, the Appellate Division affirmed an arbitrator’s decision to limit the withholding of a teacher’s increment to one year. In Trenton Board of Education v. Trenton Education Association, the Trenton Board of Education (“Board”) approved the withholding of a teacher’s increment for an indefinite period of time. The Trenton Education Association (“Association”) challenged that decision.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the Board employed Carmel Gabriel as a middle school teacher. The principal, who was Gabriel’s direct supervisor, and vice principal cited him for various deficiencies, such as problems with his teaching practices, failure to attend mandatory meetings, and failure to submit required reports. The administration also cited him for including vulgar, expletive filled quotations of students’ alleged comments to Gabriel in his students’ progress reports. Gabriel also allegedly slammed a door when he left a scheduled meeting after the vice principal was delayed and asked Gabriel to wait for him. After receiving warnings, Gabriel corrected his behavior.

Ultimately, the Board approved the withholding of Gabriel’s increment “effective September 1, 2016.” However, the Board did not set a termination date for that action.

In response, on behalf of Gabriel, the Trenton Education Association filed a grievance pursuant to the parties collective bargaining agreement. After the increment withholding was upheld at each stage of the grievance procedure, the Association demanded arbitration through the Public Employment Relations Commission (“PERC”).

The PERC arbitrator was tasked to decide whether the Board had just cause to withhold Gabriel’s salary increment effective September 1, 2016. The arbitrator found just cause for discipline but limited the period of salary increment withholding to one year. The arbitrator found the indefinite salary increment withholding to be too harsh, explaining that the Board failed to use progressive discipline and Gabriel mitigated his conduct.

The Board filed a complaint to vacate or modify the arbitration award and the Association filed a counterclaim to confirm the award. The trial court vacated the award concluding that because the arbitrator found just cause for a salary increment withholding, the Board had the prerogative to decide whether to restore it or keep it permanent.

On Appeal, the Appellate Division analyzed the arbitrator’s decision under N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8(d) – whether the arbitrator decided a legal question not placed before him or her. In short, the Appellate Division reasoned that even though the question before the arbitrator did not include the word “permanent,” she did not exceed her authority. The Appellate Division concluded that once she determined Gabriel’s conduct was “unbecoming,” the arbitrator was within her authority to determine whether there was just cause to impose an indefinite salary increment withholding or some other remedy.

 

 

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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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