UPDATE: This post was originally published on January 3, 2023. On May 22, 2023, the Supreme Court of New Jersey granted a writ of certiorari, meaning it will review the Appellate Division’s opinion in this case. The original post is below. Stand by for more.
In many areas of New Jersey employment law, the scope of an arbitrator’s powers is a significant question. This is particularly true in the adjudication of tenure charges against New Jersey teachers and principals. The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court squarely addressed this issue in the recently published decision in the case of Sanjuan v. School District of West New York.
The Sanjuan Case: Background
The Court explained that Amada Sanjuan was an assistant principal with the West New York Board of Education, after having been hired as a teacher in 1997. On February 12, 2020, she fell down a flight of stairs. Video of the scene showed that after she fell, she removed a piece of paper from her purse and placed it at the top of the stairs. She pointed out the paper to a custodian and teacher who came to help her and explained that the paper caused her fall. Sanjuan was out of work thereafter, but confirmed this version in a signed injury report.
The Board of Education reviewed the report signed by Sanjuan and the video, conducted an investigation, and determined that Sanjuan’s employment should be terminated. The Board certified tenure charges for making a false report, lying in the incident report, insurance fraud, insubordination, and other just cause. The charges were referred to the Commissioner of Education, who determined that the evidence was sufficient for the charges to be adjudicated.
Appeal of Tenure Charges Shifted to Arbitration
Previously the Tenure Employees Hearing Law required that the appeal of tenure charges would be adjudicated in a hearing before an administrative law judge in the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law, and a final decision be made by the Commissioner of Education. However, the TEACHNJ Act shifted adjudication of tenure charges against New Jersey teachers and administrators from the Office of Administrative Law, from which there were full appeal rights, to a panel of arbitrators maintained by the New Jersey Department of Education where review of decisions by the arbitrators is much more limited. The Commissioner of Education therefore referred the case to an arbitrator under the TEACHNJ Act.
The Arbitrator’s Decision
The arbitrator conducted a hearing and issued a written decision. The arbitrator found that Sanjuan’s actions constituted conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member. However, the arbitrator found that while Sanjuan’s conduct warranted losing her position, it did not warrant terminating her employment entirely due to her long record of service, and therefore demoted her to her prior position as a teacher. The arbitrator also upheld her prior suspension of 120 days, imposed another 60 day suspension, and denied Sanjuan’s request for back pay.
Sanjuan filed an order to show cause in the Superior Court of New Jersey objecting to the award, seeking reinstatement to her assistant principal position with back pay. The judge denied the application and confirmed the arbitration award as written. Sanjuan then appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. Sanjuan argued that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by demoting her, and that because she was not terminated she should have been reinstated with back pay.
The Appellate Division’s Decision
The Appellate Division explained that generally, arbitrator’s decisions are final, with few exceptions. One of these exceptions is where the arbitrator exceeds his authority by “ignoring the clear and unambiguous language of a statute.” The court accepted the arbitrator’s findings of fact, which had been confirmed by the trial judge. It therefore held that this justified the arbitrator’s finding that Sanjuan should not receive back pay during the period of her suspension without pay.
However, the Appellate Division explained that the two statutes at issue, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:6-16, limited the power of the arbitrator and Commissioner of Education to considering whether the charges warranted “dismissal or a reduction in salary.” The court therefore concluded that the arbitrator’s power was limited to just that: a dismissal or reduction in salary if the charges were sustained. Demoting Sanjuan thus exceeded the arbitrator’s authority.
The Appellate Division therefore vacated the portion of the arbitrator’s award that demoted Sanjuan with instructions for the arbitrator to consider whether additional reduction in pay, whether by way of a suspension without pay or increment withholding would be appropriate. However, the Appellate Division rejected the Board’s argument that because the arbitrator exceeded his authority he should be given the opportunity to now terminate Sanjuan’s employment because the arbitrator had already ruled that Sanjuan should not be terminated, which ruling had not been vacated.
The Bottom Line
Under the TEACHNJ Act, arbitrators have the power to deny the tenure charges and reinstate the teaching staff member with back pay, or if an arbitrator sustains tenure charges she may suspend, dismiss or reduce the teaching staff member’s salary. An arbitrator does not have the power to demote a teacher or principal.
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.