Articles Posted in Education Employment Law

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Background

Employment as a teacher and in many other New Jersey public school positions requires that the employee hold a certificate to work in their positions.  However, under certain1-300x225 circumstances, these certificates can be suspended or revoked, rendering the employee ineligible to work in their chosen profession.

The New Jersey Commissioner of Education can suspend the certificates of employee’s who leave before their term of employment ended without their employer’s consent.

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Arbitrators make the final decision in hearings on tenure charges.  Appeals are limited.  However, the scope of their powers to fashion appropriate discipline was open to question.  As I wrote last year, the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court ruled in the case ofschool-bus-1-300x200 Sanjuan v. School District of West New York that arbitrators were limited in those powers, and could not impose demotion as a remedy for disciplinary violations.  The case was appealed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision overturning the Appellate Division’s decision.

Background

Amada Sanjuan worked for the West New York Board of Education as an assistant principal.  On February 12, 2020, she fell down a flight of stairs, was injured, and was out of work as a result.  Sanjuan claimed that she fell while picking up a piece of paper on the stairs.  However, video showed that she removed a piece of paper from her purse after she fell, and placed it at the top of the stairs.

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New Jersey employment law in the public sector incorporates the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which in some cases bars relitigating issues already decided in another forum.  This applies to administrative appeals of employment action.  A New Jersey appellate court7-300x225 recently examined this doctrine in the context of the revocation of a teacher’s teaching certificate after an arbitration on tenure charges in the case of In the Matter of the Revocation of the Certificates of Lesley Etheridege by the State Board of Examiners.  The court extended the reach of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Winters case.

Background

Lesley Etheridege was employed as a teacher by the Passaic County Vocational School District.  She held a New Jersey Department of Education “Teacher of Electronic Technology Certificate of Eligibility” and a “Teacher of Electronic Technology Standard Certificate.”  In 2015, the District filed 23 tenure charges against her with the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, one for inefficiency under the TEACHNJ Act, and 22 for various instances constituting conduct unbecoming a teacher (one of which the District later dismissed).  The Commissioner found that, if true, the allegations would be grounds for termination or reduction in salary and therefore transferred the charges to an arbitrator in accordance with the TEACHNJ Act.  The arbitrator held three days of hearings and sustained the charges, finding that Etheridge had committed conduct unbecoming by “falsifying grades and engaging in inappropriate grading practices; failing to report to teaching assignments; leaving students unattended; leaving the school campus without permission or notification; failing to complete lesson plans; and insubordination by failing to provide lesson plans as directed by her supervisor.” The arbitrator rejecter Etheridge’s argument that the charges were brought because of political affiliation, nepotism, union activity and discrimination.  The arbitrator found that termination was the appropriate remedy for her continued pattern of inappropriate behavior.

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One of the most difficult New Jersey employment law issues confronted by government employees is that they are sometimes drawn into legal action because of actions taken in the course of their employment.  Defending such charges can cause significant expense andsupreme-administrative-court-3565618_960_720-300x200 hardship to government employees.  For teachers, administrators and other public education employees, however, there are two laws which provide for payment of the employee’s attorneys fees and litigation expenses by their board of education in certain criminal, quasi-criminal, administrative and civil legal actions. The Appellate Division examined the question of when an employee must notify their employer and request payment under the two different statutes in a case where the New Jersey State Board of Examiners sought to revoke an employee’s teaching certificate in the case of Maria Azzaro v. the Board of Education of the City of Trenton.

Background: The Order to Show Cause and Administrative Litigation

Maria Azzaro worked for the Trenton Board of Education.  The New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance alleged that while Azzaro was a vice-principal at Trenton Central High School improper practices occurred including misassignment of students, giving students credits for classes they did not attend or attended only sporadically, that certain classes did not meet Department requirements, and that transcripts were falsified so that students could matriculate.  As a result, in 2007, the New Jersey Department of Education, State Board of Examiners served Azzaro with an Order to Show Cause seeking revocation or suspension of her teaching certificate because she allegedly knew of or participated in these practices.

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A recent New Jersey employment law decision in the case of A.B. vs. Board of Education of the City of Hackensack, Bergen County illustrates the dangers of public employees, especially teachers, posting suggestive content on their social media accounts, and the reach and consequences of the New Jersey “Pass the Trash” Law.

 

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A.B. was a teacher with the Hackensack Board of Education.  In 2013 the Board was advised that A.B. had made inappropriate posts on her social media page, including: “Fuck me, I’m Irish”, and “Women say Men Think with Their Penis. Ladies, don’t be afraid to blow their minds.”  Finding these posts could potentially constitute sexual misconduct, the Board considered discipline and started an investigation, including referrals to the Hackensack Police Department and Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.  The Board of Education was particularly concerned that A.B.’s post could have been seen by her minor age students.  Three days later, the Board of Education and A.B. entered into a settlement agreement in which she resigned. She then went to work for another school district.  New Jersey enacted the Pass the Trash Law in 2018.

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New Jersey employment law has few more contentious areas than tenure rights for public school teachers.  I previously wrote about the Appellate Division decision in Parsells v. Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville.  The case was subsequently appealed, and the New

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Jersey Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Division’s decision while modifying it and establishing an important rule of law for when a teacher can be found to have waived her New Jersey tenure rights.

Background

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UPDATE: This post was originally published on January 3, 2023.  On May 22, 2023, the Supreme Court of New Jersey granted a writ of certiorari, meaning it will review the Appellate Division’s opinion in this case.  The original post is below.  Stand by for more.

ORIGINAL POST: 

In many areas of New Jersey employment law, the scope of an arbitrator’s powers is a significant question.  This is particularly true in the adjudication of tenure charges against New Jersey teachers and principals.  The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court squarely addressed this issue in the recently published decision in the case of Sanjuan v. School District of West New York.

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What is tenure?

Under New Jersey employment law, tenure is an added layer of job protection for certain public school employees.

What protections does tenure provide for eligible New Jersey education employees?

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The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

New Jersey employment law has long been at the forefront of prohibiting discrimination.  Indeed, the Legislature adopted New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination in 1945, long before the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 first banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, and even before the President Harry Truman’s Executive Order desegregating the Armed Forces in 1948.  The Lawtenure-male-thumb-270x180-49202-thumb-200x133-49203 Against Discrimination has been amended many times since then to expand the protections against discrimination in employment, and decisions by New Jersey courts have interpreted the Law to provide much broader protections than those provided by similar Federal statutes such as the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (known as the “ADEA”).  However, the Law Against Discrimination is not without its flaws.  The New Jersey Legislature acted in 2021 to fix one of these flaws by strengthening the protections against age discrimination.

Prior Loopholes in Age Discrimination Protections

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In many areas of New Jersey employment law, the scope of an arbitrator’s powers is a significant question.  This is particularly true in the adjudication of tenure charges against New Jersey teachers and principals.  The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court squarely addressed this issue in the recently published decision in the case of Sanjuan v. School District of West New York.

The Sanjuan Case: Background

The Court explained that Amada Sanjuan was an assistant principal with the West New York Board of Education, after having been hired as a teacher in 1997.  On February 12, 2020, she fell down a flight of stairs.  Video of the scene showed that after she fell, she removed a piece of paper from her purse and placed it at the top of the stairs.  She pointed out the paper to a custodian and teacher who came to help her and explained that the paper caused her fall.  Sanjuan was out of work thereafter, but confirmed this version in a signed injury report.

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