Court Examines Procedures for Appeals of New Jersey Tenure Arbitration Decisions
Under New Jersey employment law, a school board must bring tenure charges when it wants to discipline a tenured teacher. The teacher can then appeal the tenure charges to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education. The Department of Education then refers the case to an arbitrator for determination of whether or not the charges should be sustained. New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently examined the procedures for appealing such a tenure arbitration decision in the case of Ragland v. Board of Education of the City of Newark.
Larhonda Ragland was a tenured teacher in the Newark Public School System. She received consecutive summative evaluations of “ineffective” or “partially ineffective” based on poor student achievement and classroom observations. The Board therefore served her with tenure charges of inefficiency. She challenged the Board’s evaluation process, and the Department of Education the referred the charges to an arbitrator.
The arbitration hearing lasted seven days, after which the arbitrator rejected Ragland’s challenge to the evaluation process and upheld the tenure charges against her. Ragland then filed an action in New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, and the Board filed a cross-motion to confirm the award. The judge rejected Ragland’s arguments and confirmed the arbitration award. Ragland then appealed to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.
The Appellate Division’s Opinion
Arbitration awards are difficult to overturn. The Appellate Division explained that when courts review arbitration awards, their review is limited, and that there is a strong policy in New Jersey employment law that favors upholding arbitration awards. Under the New Jersey Arbitration Act, a court may vacate an arbitration award only in one of these limited circumstances:
a. Where the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;
b. Where there was either evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or any thereof;
c. Where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause being shown therefor, or in refusing to hear evidence, pertinent and material to the controversy, or of any other misbehaviors prejudicial to the rights of any party;
d. Where the arbitrators exceeded or so imperfectly executed their powers that a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.
Moreover, arbitration decisions on challenges to evaluation procedures are among the most difficult tenure arbitration decisions to overturn. The Appellate Division explained that when hearing a teacher’s challenge to a board of education’s evaluation process, the arbitrator has very limited authority and may consider only whether:
(1) the employee’s evaluation failed to adhere substantially to the evaluation process, including, but not limited to providing a corrective action plan;
(2) there is a mistake of fact in the evaluation;
(3) the charges would not have been brought but for considerations of political affiliation, nepotism, union activity, discrimination as prohibited by State or federal law, or other conduct prohibited by State or federal law; or
(4) the district’s actions were arbitrary and capricious.
Given both arbitrator’s and court’s limited scope of review, challenges to evaluation procedures in tenure charge appeals are the most difficult types of arbitration awards to overturn, and this case was no different. The Appellate Division found that the arbitrator correctly determined that the Board’s evaluation procedures met the requirements of the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act, known as the TEACHNJ Act, and that the procedures were approved by the New Jersey Department of Education. It also found that the Board followed these procedures, and therefore there was no basis to overturn the arbitrator’s award. The Appellate Division therefore upheld the arbitrator’s decision sustaining the charges against Ragland.
Arbitration awards are very difficult to overturn under New Jersey employment law, but it can be done. It is therefore important to document any deviation from evaluation procedures; mistakes; politics, nepotism, union bias, discrimination, or other illegal reasons; or arbitrary or capricious reasons behind poor evaluations.
Our New Jersey employment attorneys represent teachers, school administrators, and other government employees in all aspects of New Jersey employment law, including tenure charges and other discipline, arbitration, litigation, mediation and appeals. Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form on this page. We can help.