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 court 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.
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.
In 2018, the New Jersey State Board of Examiners filed an application with the Department of Education seeking to revoke Etheridege’s teaching certificates because of conduct unbecoming a teacher based on the findings of the earlier TEACHNJ arbitration. The Commissioner of Education referred the case to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law for a hearing by an administrative law judge. At the OAL Ethridge again argued that the charges were not supported by evidence, and that they were brought for improper reasons. However, the ALJ ruled that her defenses were barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel under the New Jersey Supreme Court case of Winters v North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue because they had been decided in the arbitration. He then held a hearing to determine if the conduct was sufficient to warrant revocation of her certificates, and ruled that it was. Etheridge appealed, and both the Board of Examiners and the Commissioner of Education upheld the ALJ’s decision revoking her certificates. Etheridge then appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.
The Appellate Division Extends Winters
The Appellate Division also upheld the revocation of Etheridge’s teaching certificates.
The doctrine of collateral estoppel is designed to promote finality and prevent needless, duplicative litigation. It provides that in some circumstances an issue decided in prior litigation is conclusive in later litigation between the same or related parties. The Appellate Division explained that collateral estoppel applies if:
(1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.
Relying on the Winters case, the court held that the ALJ was correct in concluding that the prior TEACHNJ Act arbitration’s conclusion that Etheridge committed conduct unbecoming was binding in the certificate revocation proceeding, and therefore collateral estoppel prevented her from arguing that she had not committed conduct unbecoming.
This is an extension of the Winters Doctrine.
In the Winters case, the New Jersey Supreme Court applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to prevent a firefighter from bringing a lawsuit against his employer for whistleblower retaliation when he had already made that argument and lost in a hearing on disciplinary charges before the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. Since then some courts have interpreted Winters to apply to situations beyond lawsuits subsequent to civil service appeals. However, in those cases, it was the employee who was brining a lawsuit in court against the employer after prior administrative appeals and the employer sought to apply collateral estoppel defensively, whereas here it was the employer who brought the subsequent case in an administrative forum and sought to apply collateral estoppel offensively.
The exact contours of the Winters Doctrine remain unclear. If you get ten employment lawyers in the same room you may get ten different interpretations.
However, what is clear is that the Winters Problem is a real issue. Therefore, when an employee seeks relief from an action by their employer, they should choose where to file carefully, because that choice will probably be where the matter is decided once and for all, subject only to appeal.
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