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Chancery Division in Bergen County Issues Important New Jersey Employment Law Decision on Appeals of Tenure Arbitration Awards by Teaching Staff Members

The Chancery Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court recently issued a public employment law decision in the case of Petrella v. The Hackensack Board of Education which is important for New Jersey teaching staff members because it examined the grounds for overturning an arbitration decision on tenure charges under the TEACHNJ Act.judge-gavel-1461998219JBc-300x200

Under New Jersey employment law, tenure confers many benefits on teaching staff members.   A teacher or other teaching staff member, such as an athletic director, who has tenure may not dismissed or have their pay reduced for any reason other than incapacity, inefficiency, conduct unbecoming, “or other just cause.”  It also gives teaching staff members appeal rights if tenure charges are filed against them, which includes binding arbitration under the TEACHNJ Act.

In the Petrella case, tenure charges were filed against a tenured athletic director for:

(1) Failing to Enforce Snow Day Protocol and Failure to Punch-In; (2) Falsifying Time Records/Theft of Time; (3) Failing to Ensure Coaches had Current CPR/First Aid Certifications; (4) Making a Highly Inappropriate Comment about Teachers dating Students; (5) Failing to Properly Schedule Transportation for Athletic Events; (6) Failure to Properly Schedule H-Cops; (7) Failure to Ensure Supervision of Concession Stand leading to Injury of a Student; (8) Misrepresentation during Investigation of a Student Injury; and (9) Pattern of Unbecoming Conduct and Other Just Cause.

The Board of Education found probable cause for dismissal.  The charges were certified to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education and the athletic director was suspended.  The athletic director filed an answer denying the charges, and pursuant to the TEACHNJ Act, the matter was sent to arbitration.  The arbitrator found the charges were supported by credible evidence, and upheld the charges and dismissal.

The athletic director filed an order to show cause with the Chancery Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey in the Bergen County Vicinage, requesting that the Court vacate the arbitration award.  The Board of Education then filed a motion to dismiss the athletic director’s case and to confirm the arbitration award (ie., to have it entered as a judgment of the court as provided by the TEACHNJ Act).

The Chancery judge upheld the arbitration award.  In doing so, he reviewed the process for tenure charges and appeals for teaching staff members.

The Court explained that arbitration has been adopted by the Legislature in the New Jersey Arbitration Act with the goal of providing:

“final, speedy and inexpensive settlement of disputes only if judicial interference with the process is minimized.” Accordingly, arbitration is meant to be “a substitute” for litigation, and not a “springboard” to it. See id. (internal citations omitted). A court may vacate an arbitration award only if it is “wholly bereft of evidential support.”

The Arbitration Act was designed to grant arbitrators extremely broad power and “extends judicial support to the arbitration process subject only to limited review.”  As a result, arbitration awards are generally presumed valid.

As a matter of public policy, it is well settled that “every intendment is indulged in favor of an arbitration award and that it is subject to impeachment only in a clear case.”  Courts will not overturn an arbitrator’s determination of a legal issue so long as the determination was “reasonably debatable.” In short, the Court is obligated to summarily uphold the award if the arbitrator offers even a barely colorable justification for the outcome, and will not set aside an award “merely because the court would have decided the facts or construed the law differently.”

This is a tough burden indeed on boards of education and teaching staff members to surmount when they have lost at arbitration.

The Arbitration Act sets out the limited grounds for setting aside arbitration awards.  These are very difficult to meet.

(1) the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or other undue means;

(2) the court finds evident partiality by an arbitrator; corruption by an arbitrator; or misconduct by an arbitrator prejudicing the rights of a party to the arbitration proceeding;

(3) an arbitrator refused to postpone the hearing upon showing of sufficient cause for postponement, refused to consider evidence material to the controversy, or otherwise conducted the hearing contrary to section 15 of this act, so as to substantially prejudice the rights of a party to the arbitration proceeding;

(4) an arbitrator exceeded the arbitrator’s powers;

(5) there was no agreement to arbitrate, unless the person participated in the arbitration proceeding without raising the objection pursuant to subsection c. of section 15 of this act not later than the beginning of the arbitration hearing; or

(6) the arbitration was conducted without proper notice of the initiation of an arbitration as required in section 9 of this act so as to substantially prejudice the rights of a party to the arbitration proceeding.

The judge examined these factors and found that the athletic director could not establish any of them (Subpart five does not apply because the TEACHNJ Act requires arbitration).  The athletic director argued that that number one applied, ie., that the award was procured by undue means.  Specifically, he alleged that the decision contained mistakes of both facts and law, and that the arbitrator failed to adequately consider mitigating circumstances.  However, the judge explained that the athletic director could not satisfy the high legal burden that the New Jersey Arbitration Act and TEACHNJ Act place on him.  The judge explained that:

the Arbitration Act imparts extremely broad power to arbitrators and limited review from the judiciary. As a result, arbitration awards are generally presumed valid.

Moreover, this Court is bound by the fact that arbitration awards are subject to impeachment only in clear cases.  (emphasis added). Ultimately, as long as an arbitrator’s finding as to a legal issue was “reasonably debatable,” then courts will not overturn that Arbitrator’s determination.

In other words… a court is obligated to summarily uphold an arbitrator’s award if the arbitrator provided even a barely colorable justification for the outcome; a court will not set aside an award “merely because the court would have decided the facts or construed the law differently.”

Since the Court found that “Here, the Arbitrator’s decision and findings are undoubtedly ‘reasonably debatable,’ where even if the Court were to decide certain issues differently, the Arbitrator’s award should still be confirmed.”

The takeaway is that when fighting tenure charges, there are two levels where an effective defense can be made, before the board of education and before the arbitrator.  Once the arbitration award is entered, it is extremely difficult to have it overturned.

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