The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court recently addressed a procedural question with significant implications for New Jersey teachers and other teaching staff members fighting tenure charges under the TEACHNJ Act of 2012.
The TEACHNJ Act changed the system for fighting tenure charges. Previously, a teacher or other teaching staff member would have the right to have their appeals heard before an administrative law judge, who would normally have a trial on the merits of the teacher’s objections and defenses. The results would then be sent to the New Jersey Department of Education, which could accept or reject the administrative law judge’s findings. Whatever the outcome, either party could appeal the Department of Education’s decision to the Appellate Division and then to New Jersey’s Supreme Court. Under the TEACHNJ Act, however, the administrative law process was eliminated, and objections to tenure charges are now heard by a single arbitrator in binding arbitration. There are only very limited grounds for appeal.
Recently, a teacher had a series of tenure charges filed against him. He had two separate charges of “inefficiency.” He then had a later tenure charge of “conduct unbecoming” for allegedly inflicting prohibited corporal punishment on a student. He objected that the entire controversy doctrine barred the charges because they occurred before the inefficiency charges were decided and therefore they all should have been brought together.
As New Jersey’s Supreme Court has explained, the entire controversy doctrine is a judicially created rule which essentially holds that whenever possible legal controversies should be resolved in only one litigation in only one forum, be it a court trial, arbitration, administrative appeal, or otherwise. The Appellate Division in this case, Yarborough v. State Operated School District of City of Newark, however, rejected the teacher’s arguments and held that the entire controversy doctrine did not apply, and the separate arbitrations for Yarborough’s inefficiency and conduct unbecoming charges were proper.
In the Yarborough case, Leonard Yarborough , a public school teacher in Newark, faced three sets of tenure charges. In the first charges filed, instituted on October 9, 2014, Yarborough was charged with “inefficiency” based on his summative evaluations. In the second charges filed, instituted on January 26, 2015, Yarborough was again charged with “inefficiency” based on his summative evaluations. In the third set of charges, Yarborough was charged with alleged “conduct unbecoming a teacher” based on his allegedly violating district policy against corporal punishment on October 21, 2013 and February 28, 2014. While these conduct unbecoming charges were filed after the two inefficiency charges, they were based on conduct which occurred before either of the inefficiency charges were filed.
Yarborough challenged the inefficiency charges in arbitration under the TEACHNJ Act. The arbitrator ruled that the entire controversy doctrine applied to the two inefficiency charges and dismissed the January 26, 2015 tenure charges because they had the identical basis as the October 2014 charges – “ineffective” or “partially ineffective” on Yarborough’s annual summative evaluations.
However, the later-“filed conduct” unbecoming tenure charges were not dismissed. The District went to the Superior Court of New Jersey to have the arbitration award entered as an order and judgment. Yarborough objected that the entire controversy doctrine precluded this arbitration, but the Court disagreed and confirmed the arbitration award. Yarborough then appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, which affirmed the rulings of the arbitrator and the Superior Court.
While the entire controversy doctrine was not wholly inapplicable to arbitration, it has only limited applicability, particularly to the arbitration of tenure charges, the Appellate Division explained. Moreover, in this particular factual scenario, the Appellate Division held, the doctrine did not control. The entire controversy doctrine is an equitable rule, and judges and arbitrators are allowed discretion. Here the arbitrator and Superior Court judge were correct in rejecting Yarborough’s objection, because the inefficiency charges and conduct unbecoming charges were based on separate procedural rules, different factual bases, and different burdens of proof.
The Appellate Division did not hold that the entire controversy doctrine was inapplicable to every arbitration under the TEACHNJ Act. Under other fact patterns it might apply. For instance, the Appellate Division did not indicate that the second inefficiency charge was improperly rejected by the arbitrator under the doctrine. However, the Yarborough case makes clear that the entire controversy doctrine has only limited applicability in arbitration proceedings under the TEACHNJ Act because in these disputes issues are ordinarily narrowly framed, which therefore “does not provide a forum conducive to extensive… joinder.”
So the takeaway is that unless the tenure charges are remarkably similar – such as the two inefficiency charges – it is unlikely that the entire controversy doctrine will be a successful defense to separate tenure charges based on different facts.
Our employment attorneys represent New Jersey teachers, principals, nurses, administrators and other public school employees in all aspects of their employee / employer relationship, including fighting tenure charges, Donaldson hearings, and litigation over discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination. Call us at (973) 890-0004 or email us to set up a consultation with one of our employment lawyers.