Articles Posted in Labor and Employment Law

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Tenure is one of the most important protections for teachers in New Jersey employment law.  Both full-time and part-time teachers may receive tenure protection.  However, no New Jersey court has addressed the situation where a part-time tenured teacher’s earnings were reduced when her hours were cut, even though her hourly rate of pay was slightly increased.  However, in the recent case of Zimmerman v. Sussex County Educational Services Commission, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue head on.

Background: General Principles About Tenure for New Jersey Teachers

One of the bedrock principles of New Jersey public education employment law is tenure protection.  Tenure of teaching staff members employed in the positions of teacher, principal, assistant principal, vice-principal, assistant superintendent, athletic trainer, school nurse and other positions in public schools requiring certification is generally governed by Title 18A of New Jersey Statutes. It was designed to protect competent and qualified teaching staff member from being subject to removal, discipline or “reduction in compensation” for “unfounded, flimsy or political reasons.” Tenure is a statutory right, not contractual.  It cannot be waived, forfeited or bargained away.  When a teacher satisfies the statutory requirements, she receives tenure protection.

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defense-attorney-840062__340-300x237In December of 2017 New Jersey’s then-Governor Chris Christie signed off on several pieces of legislation to help those with criminal histories turn their lives around and become more productive members of society. For example, Governor Christie signed off on a bill barring employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history during the initial job application process. Around that same time, he also enacted a law to alter the requirements for individuals to be eligible for an expungement of their criminal records. Those changes took effect as of October 1, 2018.

An expungement of criminal records generally has the effect of causing the arrest, conviction and/or any related proceedings to be deemed not to have occurred. In most cases, a person who has had her records expunged may answer “no” to any questions relating to whether an arrest, conviction, or any such proceeding occurred. There are a few exceptions. For instance, in a job application for a position with the court (judicial branch); in an application for another expungement, or to a court in relation to accepting the person into a treatment or other diversion program, the fact of an expungement and the criminal history may still need to be disclosed. However, the records are not made available for any type of background check in other instances (such as for private employment).

The new changes to New Jersey’s expungement laws include several significant alterations in the eligibility requirements for expungements. For instance, an individual used to have to wait 10 years to expunge a felony conviction. That has now been reduced to 6 years. There is also an early pathway for such expungements if the applicant can establish that the expungement is in the public interest, and in consideration of the nature of the offense and the character of the applicant. That early pathway was available previously, and remains in place with a waiting period of only 5 years. Also, the waiting period for expunging juvenile offenses was also reduced from 5 years to 3 years.

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disciplinary-1326277__340-300x300New Jersey’s government employees provide a wide range of services without which the public could not survive. These range from law enforcement to firefighting, mass transit, garbage removal, building and maintaining roads, ensuring the safety of buildings, protecting the civil rights of New Jersey’s citizens, protecting the environment, traffic safety, urban planning, parks, agriculture, guarding inmates, the list goes on – in short, they affect virtually every aspect of our lives.

Our employment attorneys regularly represent New Jersey civil servants defending themselves against discipline imposed their governmental employers. This is a brief overview of discipline and appeals procedures under New Jersey’s Civil Service System.

Background

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New Jersey’s Civil Service governs the hiring, promotion, classification and discipline of employees of government the State of New Jersey, and employees of the majority of counties, municipalities and governmental boards and commissions which have chosen to be governed by Civil Service . The Civil Service System is governed by the New Jersey Constitution and New Jersey’s Civil Service Act and the regulations issued by New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission which implement the Civil Service Act.

Constitutional Foundation

New Jersey’s Civil Service System is based on a strong constitutional foundation. Article VII, section I of New Jersey’s Constitution of 1947 provides that:

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books-2826380__340-300x200One of the areas which counterintuitively generates among the most questions in New Jersey employment law is teachers’ tenure.  Although teacher tenure dates  back over a century, tenure is still an area of the law which generates much controversy and litigation.  The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court recently issued a decision in one such area of contention in the case of Zimmerman v. Sussex County Educational Services Commission.

In that case,  Beryl Zimmerman and Judy Comment were tenured, part-time teachers for the Sussex County Educational Services Commission.  They provided remedial instruction to eligible students.  For reasons that were unclear, the Commission reduced their hours, but not their rate of pay.  During the 2013-2014 school year, Comment worked approximately 1117 hours, and earned a gross salary of $36,838.74.  The following year, however, the Commission reduced Comment’s teaching to only 305 hours, a reduction of 784 hours and $26,507.61.  Zimmerman’s hours were reduced from 954 during the 2013-2014 school year to 658 the next, reducing her gross earnings from $27,668.81 to $19,603.42, a reduction of $8,065.39.

Zimmerman and Comment appealed to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education claiming that the reduction violated their tenure rights.  The Commission argued that it did not violate the teachers’ tenure because their hourly rate not reduced (and in fact they received an annual incremental raise in their hourly rate), and their individual contracts and collective negotiations agreement contained no guaranteed minimum number of hours they would work.  After proceedings before an administrative law judge, the Commissioner of Education agreed with the Commission and rejected Zimmerman’s and Comment’s appeal.  The Commission of Education found that because the hourly rate was not reduced, and because the union and individual contracts did not guarantee Zimmerman and Comment a certain number of hours, the reduction in their hours did not violate their tenure protections.  Zimmerman and Comment then appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Appellate Division, which reversed the Commissioner’s decision.