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Stone v. Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders

Decided: March 16, 1981.


Deighan, J.s.c.


[180 NJSuper Page 431] Plaintiff applies for an injunction to restrain defendants Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders (board) and the individual freeholders from enforcing a layoff notice given to

405 employees of the county, including plaintiff, and to rescind the layoff notices. Plaintiff brings this action on behalf of himself and as a representative of a class of fellow employees of the County of Camden, all of whom are members of Locals 2301, 2305 and 2307 of AFSCME, AFL-CIO (unions). The facts are not in dispute.

The sole question involved is the validity of a "no layoff" clause in the collective bargaining agreement between board and union. A "no layoff" clause requires that no employee may be laid off for budgetary reasons. While there are many cases defining and interpreting the nonnegotiable managerial prerogatives of governmental agencies, none deal specifically with the validity of a "no layoff" clause in a collective bargaining agreement.

The effective date of the bargaining agreement was January 1, 1978 for a term of one year. The agreement is automatically renewed from year to year, but the parties have been negotiating the terms of the agreement for well over a year. Article XX, § 10, of the present agreement provides "The Employer agrees not to layoff any employee for budgetary reasons."

Plaintiff seeks to enforce the no layoff clause. He contends that it was exacted from board because of modest wage increases and that without this clause regular county employees may be laid off and replaced with CETA employees.*fn1

On December 11, 1980 the Public Employees Relation Commission (PERC), upon application by board on a petition for scope of negotiations determination, ruled that this clause is a nonnegotiable managerial prerogative. Board contends that by virtue of the PERC order, Article XX, § 10, of the agreement is invalid and therefore the layoff notices are effective. In response, plaintiff invokes the doctrine of estoppel.

After oral argument plaintiff's counsel brought to the attention of the court the case of Sinclair Refining Co. v. Bergen Cty. , 103 N.J. Super. 426 (App.Div.1968), certif. den. 53 N.J. 272 (1969). There it was held that where a contract with a county is a product of an ultra vires act in the primary sense it is absolutely void and the equitable doctrine of estoppel may not be invoked against the county, id. at 433, citing Slurzberg v. Bayonne , 29 N.J. 106, 115 (1959). Also, the doctrine of laches can be a defense only where there is a delay, unexplained and unexcusable, in enforcing a known right and prejudice has resulted to the other party because of such delay. In re Meadowlands Communication Systems, Inc. , 175 N.J. Super. 53, 63 (App.Div.1980), certif. den. 85 N.J. 455 (1981). There has been no delay in exercising a managerial prerogative in issuing layoff notices because there has been no occasion to issue such notice until February 20, 1981. Laches as well as the estoppel doctrine are not applicable.

Board challenges the jurisdiction of this court and contends that pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4, PERC has exclusive jurisdiction over disputes arising out of collective bargaining agreements. Defendants refer to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4 which provides in part, "(c) [PERC] shall have exclusive power . . . to prevent anyone from engaging in any unfair practice listed in Subsections (a) and (b) above." Subsection (a) states, "Public employers . . . are prohibited from . . . (3) discriminating in regard to hire or tenure employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by this act. . . ." It is the position of defendants that regardless of the remedy plaintiff seeks, the dispute is within the scope of a collective bargaining agreement over which PERC has exclusive jurisdiction, citing, Woodstown-Pilesgrove Reg'l School Dist. Bd. of Ed. , 164 N.J. Super. 106, 108 (App.Div.1978), aff'd , 81 N.J. 582 (1980). See also, State v. State Supervisory Employees Ass'n , 78 N.J. 54, 83 (1978), and cases infra. Without question, PERC has jurisdiction concerning unfair labor practices -- and the subject matter

concerning the no layoff clause may be categorized as an unfair labor practice; nevertheless, a contractual interpretation is a legal question to be resolved by the courts. Ridgefield Park Ed. Ass'n v. Ridgefield Park Bd. of Ed. , 78 N.J. 144, 155 (1978).

Next, defendants contend that the PERC determination in the administrative proceedings entitled Camden Cty. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, Petitioners, and Locals 2301, 2305 and 2307, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees , Docket No. SN-81-9, issued December 11, 1980, invalidated this no layoff clause. That ...

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