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New Jersey Supreme Court Gives Tenure Hearing Arbitrators Expansive Powers to Fashion Appropriate Discipline Short of Termination

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.



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.

Based on the video and subsequent investigation, the Board of Education determined that Sanjuan’s employment should be terminated for falsifying her injury report.  The Board certified tenure charges alleging that Sanjuan filed a false injury report, lied in the incident report, committed insurance fraud, insubordination, and for other just cause.  The New Jersey Commissioner of Education determined that the evidence was sufficient for the charges to be adjudicated and therefore referred the case to an arbitrator under the Tenure Employees Hearing Law and the TEACHNJ Act.


The Arbitration

The arbitrator conducted a hearing and heard witnesses.  The arbitrator determined that Sanjuan’s actions were conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member.  However, the arbitrator found that Sanjuan’s conduct warranted did not warrant terminating her employment entirely due to her long record of good service.  The arbitrator therefore  ordered that Sanjuan be demoted to her prior position as a teacher in which she had tenure.  The arbitrator also upheld her prior suspension of 120 days, imposed another 60 day suspension, and denied Sanjuan’s request for back pay.


Confirmation of the Arbitration Order

A successful party in arbitration can have the decision confirmed as an enforceable judgment in the Superior Court of New Jersey.  The opposing party may object, but there are only very limited grounds to do so.  Sanjuan therefore filed an order to show cause in the Superior Court arguing that the Court should reject the arbitrator’s decision and reinstate her as an assistant principal with back pay.  The judge disagreed, confirmed the arbitration decision as written and entered it as an enforceable judgment.


Sanjuan’s Appeal to the Appellate Division

Sanjuan appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.  Sanjuan argued that the arbitrator did not have the power to demote her and therefore exceeded his authority, which is one of the grounds for appealing an arbitration award.  She therefore argued that because she was not terminated she should be reinstated and receive back pay.

The Appellate Division agreed that the arbitrator did not have the authority to demote her, and therefore ordered that she be reinstated as assistant principal.  The Appellate Division reasoned that because the Tenure Hearing Law, as amended by the TEACHNJ Act, limited the Commissioner of Education to referring tenure charges to arbitration only when he found that the charges warranted “dismissal or a reduction in salary,”  dismissal or a reduction in salary were the only penalties that an arbitrator had the power to impose.

The Board argued that if the arbitrator did not have the authority to demote Sanjaun, then the case should be remanded to determine if the proper remedy should be termination, but the Appellate Division disagreed.  It reasoned that since the arbitrator had already determined that the charges did not warrant termination, reinstatement to her position as assistant principal was the only available option.

The Board of Education appealed the case to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.


The Supreme Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Division’s reasoning and reversed its decision.

The Supreme Court explained that the Tenure Employees Hearing Law governs the adjudication of tenure charges.  The Law has been amended several times since it was adopted in 1967 to replace the Tenure Employees Hearing Act, most recently in 2012 by the TEACHNJ Act which changed the final adjudication to an arbitration rather than a hearing by an administrative law judge and final decision by the Commissioner or Education.  The Court explained that the only thing that changed was the method of disposition and the threshold for determining whether the charges were ripe for adjudication, not the penalties available to the decision maker.  The Court explained that arbitrators therefore had the same authority as decision makers before the 2012 TEACHNJ Act amendments.

The Supreme Court thus looked at the remedies allowed in prior versions of the law and explained that the decision maker had always, and therefore still has, broad leeway to fashion remedies beyond “dismissal or a reduction in salary.”  This discretion may be limited by a union contract, but in this case there was no union contract which governed the situation.  The Supreme Court therefore held that arbitrators deciding hearings on tenure charges have broad discretion to fashion penalties, and that includes the authority to order demotion.


The Takeaway

Under the Tenure Employees Hearing Law, as amended by the TEACHNJ Act, arbitrators have broad power fashion appropriate penalties when they have determined that an tenured education employee has committed disciplinary infractions.  These penalties include demotion.

It is significant to note that employee-friendly organizations joined the Board’s appeal.  This is because giving the arbitrator a broader set of remedies will in all likelihood lead to less harsh results than if an arbitrator was faced with the choice of either termination an employee’s employment or not, with no option in between.


Contact Us

Our New Jersey employment law attorneys represent public employees, including teachers and principals, in all aspects of New Jersey employment law, including tenure hearings and appeals.  Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form on this page to schedule a consultation with one of our New Jersey employment lawyers.  We can help.

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