On appeal from decision and order of Public Employment Relations Commission.
Seidman, Antell and Lane.
Appellant East Orange Public Library (Library) appeals from a determination of the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) that it had violated N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a)(1) in terminating the employment of respondent Constance Taliaferro. It also appeals from the order issued by PERC which, among other things, directed the Library to cease and desist from interfering with the statutory rights of its employees, "particularly, by terminating employees, such as Constance Taliaferro, for the exercise of such rights as filing grievances," and to offer Taliaferro reinstatement with back pay.
The PERC decision and order emanates from an unfair practice charge filed by Taliaferro under the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act, N.J.S.A. 34:13A-1 et seq. She alleged that the Library's termination of her employment was a violation of N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a)(1) through (7), in that it was motivated in part by her filing and processing a grievance and by her involvement in union activities. At the hearing Taliaferro contended that these constituted the sole reasons for her discharge. The Library maintained that its only reason for terminating the employment was work-connected, in that Taliaferro was unable satisfactorily and efficiently to perform her duties. In the course of the hearing the alleged violations were narrowed to subparagraphs (1) and (3) of N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(a): interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by this act, and discriminating in regard to hire or tenure of employment to encourage or
discourage employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by the statute.
The hearing examiner found that the charging party had failed to meet her burden of proving that the Library had manifested anti-union animus toward her either during the course of her employment or in terminating the employment. He accordingly concluded that the Library had not violated subsection (a)(3) and recommended a dismissal of the charge to that extent. The hearing officer found, however, that the Library "independently violated subsection (a)(1) of the Act under the standard of New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry " in that Taliaferro's discharge "was triggered by and causally connected to her initial effort to present a grievance to the Board of Trustees on November 30, 1978." Following the Library's filing of exceptions to the hearing examiner's recommended report and decision, PERC substantially accepted the findings and conclusions contained therein and issued the decision and order which is the subject matter of this appeal.
The charging party was employed by the Library as its library exhibit artist and public information assistant. The position was in the classified civil service, but the employee's status was provisional pending examination and certification. She received the lowest grade of the four candidates who took the Civil Service examination in July 1979 after the termination of her employment. The library director, Dorothy S. Jones, was Taliaferro's immediate supervisor. At first they got along well but by October 1978 the relationship cooled. Ms. Jones criticized her subordinate's work and put her complaints in writing. Deeming the complaints to be unfounded, Taliaferro decided to submit a grievance and requested that it be placed on the agenda for the next meeting of the board of trustees later that month. Taliaferro appeared at the meeting but the board refused to hear her when Jones advised the board that Taliaferro had not submitted a written grievance to her. Jones later reprimanded Taliaferro for attempting to present her grievance without permission and, after learning that Taliaferro had commandeered all the library
employees to help make the Christmas display, decided to terminate her employment and did so on December 18 to be effective January 12.
At the board's meeting on December 28 the termination was not accepted. Instead, Jones was directed to change her notice of termination to a recommendation of termination. Taliaferro was permitted to present her grievance to the board and to respond to each of Jones' complaints regarding her work performance. The board decided not to terminate Taliaferro's employment. A personnel committee was formed consisting of the board chairman and two members. The committee thereafter met with Jones and Taliaferro individually and jointly. The problem appeared to the committee to be a personality conflict. Subsequently, the board notified Taliaferro to return to her job on January 16, 1979 and to work toward a reconciliation "of work-oriented objectives" with Jones "for the good and welfare" of the library system. She was informed that her work would be monitored and evaluated by the committee for a period of three months, after which a recommendation would be made to the board. Taliaferro was removed from the direct supervision of Jones and assigned to the assistant director. Taliaferro was closely watched and, after six weeks, the committee determined that she was not properly performing her duties and recommended her discharge. The board accepted the recommendation and terminated the employment April 14, 1979.
In concluding that the Library's discharge of Taliaferro violated subsection (a)(1) the hearing examiner took note of a public employee's constitutional right to present a grievance to a public employer. N.J.Const. (1947), Art. I, par. 19. He also held that the presentation of a grievance was a protected activity under subsection (a)(1) of N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4. The hearing examiner found that the Library, "through the action of Jones," violated that ...