A Capehart Scatchard Blog

BOE Unable to Withhold Pay of Teacher Who Collected Unemployment Benefits During Suspension

On May 18, 2017, the Commissioner of Education in Strassle v. Old Bridge Township Board of Education affirmed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge that tenured teacher Thomas Strassle was entitled to pay during his suspension even though he had collected unemployment benefits during the suspension.

Strassle was a tenured teacher employed by the Old Bridge Township Board of Education (“Board”). In September 2015, the Board placed him on a paid suspension pending an investigation of his conduct pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.3. Thereafter, in April 2016, the Board certified tenure charges against Strassle and converted his suspension to an unpaid status for 120-days pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-14. The 120-days expired on September 1, 2016, at which time Strassle was placed back on a paid suspension while the parties litigated the tenure charges. Meanwhile, Strassle applied for and received unemployment compensation during the summer months of his suspension.

On October 5, 2016, an arbitrator ruled that Strassle should not be terminated from his position but that he should receive a loss of pay of 120 days, which was the pay already withheld following the certification of the tenure charges. The arbitrator’s decision described Strassle’s penalty as a “forfeiture of the 120 days of pay.”

On November 30, 2016, the Board stopped paying Strassle’s salary. The Board argued that Strassle improperly collected unemployment benefits during the summer months while he was suspended. In addition, as a 10-month teaching staff member, Strassle would not be paid during the summer. Further, the Board interpreted the arbitrator’s decision that “forfeiture of pay” meant all compensation, including any unemployment compensation received.

Unfortunately for the Board, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rejected the Board’s arguments. Specifically, the ALJ determined there is no exception to the 120-day suspension under N.J.S.A. 18A:6-14. Therefore, the arbitrator could not have awarded the result sought by the Board. Moreover, the ALJ reasoned that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-14 does not regulate compensation that an employee may receive while on suspension. For these reasons, the ALJ required the Board to pay back Strassle’s salary from November 30, 2016 through the date of the ALJ’s decision.

After the ALJ issued his ruling, the parties did not file exceptions. The Commissioner of Education then affirmed the ALJ’s decision.

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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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