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New Jersey Supreme Court Rejects Newark School District’s Firing of Tenured Secretary in Major Public Employment Law Decision

Both New Jersey’s tenure laws in Title 18A, which govern employees in New Jersey’s public schools, and the New Jersey Civil Service Act in Title 11A and Civil Service regulations are designed to ensure that government employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, promotion, etc., are made based on merit rather than nepotism, cronyism, racism, sexism, favoritism or politics.  Of course, these factors still come into play, and employers seek ways around these laws.  The New Jersey Supreme Court recently rejected such an attempt by the Newark School District to terminate a tenured secretary.

Brenda Miller was an employee of the Newark School District, which had been taken over and operated by the State of New Jersey.  The District had adopted the Civil Service Act, Title 11A of New Jersey Statutes, to govern its employees.  As public school employees, however, their employment was also governed by Title 18A, which governs New Jersey’s public grammar schools, middle schools, high schools and state colleges.

Brenda was hired in 1998 and held clerical and secretarial positions through 2012.  By virtue of this service she had acquired tenure under Title 18A.  These positions were also governed by the Civil Service System, and were considered “classified” titles.  In 2012, however, the District reclassified Brenda’s current position to an “unclassified” confidential assistant, which as an unclassified title did not have the same civil service protections as classified positions – indeed, unclassified positions have little more protection than an employment at will job in the private sector.  In 2014, citing the unclassified status of Brenda’s title, the District terminated her.  It did not provide her with notice or a hearing.

Brenda appealed to both the Civil Service Commission and the Commissioner of Education, arguing that she had acquired tenure under section 17-2, under Chapter 17 of Title 18A. (N.J.S. 18A:17-2.)  The District, on the other hand, argued that as an unclassified civil service employee Brenda had no tenure protections under New Jersey’s Civil Service Act and Regulations, and that section 28-2 of Chapter 28 of Title 18A (N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2) governed, and it stated that nothing in “this chapter” would affect persons in the classified civil service.    Both the Civil Service Commission and the Commissioner of Education rejected Brenda’s arguments and denied her appeal.  Brenda then appealed to the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court.

The Appellate Division, in an unpublished decision, rejected the District’s arguments and reversed the Commissioner’s decision, holding that Brenda had acquired tenure under section 17-2 of Title 18A, and still had it.  The Appellate Division explained that Chapter 28 only governs tenure only for “teaching staff members” (generally, although not exclusively, teachers), while Chapter 17, and particularly section 17-2, governed tenure for secretaries, and Chapter 17 contained no provision limiting its applicability.  Thus, because the Brenda had obtained tenure under Chapter 17, the District could not remove her tenure under Chapter 28 by reclassifying her position as unclassified.

The District appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.  However, like the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court likewise rejected the District’s arguments and upheld the reversal, adopting the reasoning of the Appellate Division opinion.

 

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The employment law attorneys at McLaughlin & Nardi, LLC represent public employees, including teachers and other employees of New Jersey’s public schools.  Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form on this page to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.  We can help.