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Owens v. Press Publishing Co.

Decided: February 17, 1955.


Leonard, J.c.c. (specially assigned).


[34 NJSuper Page 205] The five plaintiffs herein have moved for summary judgment against the defendant,

and the defendant in turn has moved for a dismissal of the complaint and summary judgment against the plaintiffs.

For the purposes of this motion, each counsel has agreed to rely upon the pleadings filed, as amended and supplemented, the pretrial order, the supplemental pretrial order, the exhibits mentioned therein, and the answers to interrogatories by each of the plaintiffs.

The material facts involved herein are not disputed and are generally stipulated and agreed to in the pretrial order and the supplement thereto. Presently I will not attempt to set forth these facts, but will refer to the same as they become pertinent in this determination.

These five plaintiffs are all former employees of the defendant who seek in this suit the recovery of severance pay from the defendant, the publisher of a newspaper in Atlantic City. On March 14, 1944 the Newspaper Guild of Philadelphia and Camden, and I will hereafter refer to it as the Guild, was certified as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for certain categories of the defendant's employees, including the categories of the five plaintiffs. Thereupon, the Guild and the defendant did on October 23, 1944 enter into a collective bargaining agreement or labor contract. Thereafter, five successive agreements or contracts were entered into between them, the last being on November 20, 1950, which contract by its terms expired on August 22, 1952.

All these labor contracts or agreements provided:

"When an employee is discharged for any reason other than gross misconduct, he shall be paid in addition to any sum otherwise due him, one week's pay for each six months of continuous service or major fraction thereof."

The maximum was increased by each contract, from 5 years and 15 weeks in the first contract, to 12 years and 24 weeks in the last contract.

It is upon these provisions for severance pay that the plaintiffs base their claim in this action.

It is essentially settled that employees such as the plaintiffs may bring this action in their own name directly against the defendant for the enforcement of the rights contained in a bargaining agreement or contract. With this I am certain that both counsel agree. Dooley v. Lehigh Valley R.R. Co. , 130 N.J. Eq. 75 (Ch. 1941), 131 N.J. Eq. 468 (E. & A. 1942); Kennedy v. Westinghouse Electric Corp. , 16 N.J. 280 (1954).

The rules of construction to be applied to these agreements or contracts have been fully set forth by our Supreme Court in the Kennedy case, supra. A collective bargaining agreement must be construed not narrowly and technically, but broadly and so as to accomplish its evident aims. Such an agreement should have a reasonable construction. The situation of the parties, attendant circumstances, and objects they were thereby striving to obtain are to be regarded. The canons of construction brought to bear on the ordinary contract are fully serviceable in ascertaining the meaning of the language employed in a collective bargaining agreement.

I will attempt to follow these canons in making my determination herein.

As I have said, there were six contracts executed between the Guild and the defendant, each with a similar provision as to severance pay, but with different maximums. That the Guild and the defendant in the interest of all the members had a right to mutually modify these contracts by subsequent contracts cannot tenably be argued. Elder v. New York Central R.R. Co. , 152 F.2d 361 (6 th Cir. 1945); Walker v. Pennsylvania-Reading S.S. Lines , 142 N.J. Eq. 588 (Ch. 1948).

I will, therefore, hold that the last contract, that is the one dated November 20, 1950, Exhibit P-7 in evidence, is the effective one herein, and the one upon which I will attempt to determine the respective rights of the parties herein. With that conclusion counsel are likewise in agreement.

All the plaintiffs, except the plaintiff Lewallen, were hired at a time when one or the other of these contracts were in force and are, therefore, entitled to the benefit of the rights set forth therein as modified by the last contract.

The plaintiff Lewallen was originally in the editorial department of the defendant and hired in 1935, and had been continuously so employed up to 1944 when the Guild and the defendant entered into the first contract.

I will determine that the first contract covered her as well as other employees then in the employment of the defendant. See Article I of the first contract, Exhibit P -1. She, therefore, likewise is entitled to the benefit of the rights set forth in the first contract, as finally modified by the last contract.

As I have previously stated, the last contract expired on August 22, 1952. Prior to its expiration the Guild and defendant attempted to negotiate a new contract but were unable so to do, and no new contract was ever entered into between them. The plaintiffs continued to be in the employment of the ...

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