On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Union County.
Allcorn, Francis and Morton I. Greenberg. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morton I. Greenberg, J.A.D.
This matter comes on before this court on appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, which confirmed an arbitration award in favor of plaintiff. The action is another facet of the dispute described in Williams v. Plainfield Bd. of Ed., 176 N.J. Super. 154, 156-157 (App.Div.1980), certif. den. 87 N.J. 306 (1981).
The basic facts are not disputed and are set forth in our earlier opinion. The thrust of plaintiff's contention is that the overall consequence of a transfer of Jeannette Williams from the position of high school principal to elementary school principal resulted in a reduction of her compensation in violation of the collective bargaining agreement between the parties. The reduction was not immediate but was prospective. It was predicated on the fact that whereas a high school principal's salary is calculated on a ratio of 1.76 times a teacher's base salary, the ratio for an elementary school principal's salary is 1.4 times the teacher's base salary. Thus, even though Williams' salary was not immediately reduced, the long-range effect of the transfer would be to reduce her increments in the future.
As a result of defendant's action in transferring Williams there have been commenced on her behalf proceedings giving rise to numerous hearings already extending over a period of almost six years. Williams filed a "Petition of Appeal" dated July 21, 1976 with the Commissioner of Education. She asked that defendant be enjoined from transferring her to the position of elementary school principal and that she be restored to the position of high school principal with the emoluments of that office. In a second procedure plaintiff filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement between the parties. Ultimately the grievance reached an arbitrator who was asked to determine whether plaintiff was correct in its contention that defendant had reduced Williams' rank and compensation in violation of the agreement. Finally, Williams has sought reinstatement and back pay in an action in the United States
District Court. While we do not have a copy of her complaint in that case, counsel were in agreement at oral argument before us that the complaint was based on grounds of discrimination. We were further advised at oral argument that the District Court action has been stayed pending disposition of this appeal.
The arbitration was decided by an award dated October 4, 1977. The arbitrator concluded that defendant had violated the agreement by reducing Williams' compensation since defendant failed to calculate her compensation on the 1.76 principal ratio. The arbitrator awarded back salary for 1976-1977 of $1,848, representing the difference between the $32,560 salary paid to her and the $34,408 calculated by use of the higher ratio. Defendant was directed to calculate her compensation by use of the 1.76 ratio. On December 29, 1977 plaintiff commenced a Chancery Division action to confirm the award. On February 22, 1978 defendant filed a counterclaim seeking to vacate the award. On March 22, 1978 an order was entered in the Chancery Division putting the matter in an inactive status until the further order of the court. This order seems to have been entered because Williams' petition was still pending before the commissioner of education.
The proceedings in the action before the Commissioner resulted eventually in our decision in Williams v. Plainfield Bd. of Ed., supra, 176 N.J. Super. at 154. We there determined that the transfer did not constitute a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-5. That section interdicts reductions in compensation not based on just cause. It was our view that Williams' future salary was not an appropriate factor to be considered in determining whether Williams had been reduced in compensation. In short we held that the law was not intended to protect expectancies.
After the conclusion of those judicial proceedings the action now on appeal was reactivated. Both parties moved in the Chancery Division for summary judgment. The trial judge in an opinion dated July 21, 1980 determined that the award should be confirmed. He pointed out that in public employment cases
an arbitrator's determinations are subject to pertinent statutory criteria as well as the public interest and welfare. He said that the court does not sit as an appellate tribunal in reviewing awards. He noted that the arbitrator stated that he was deciding the case under the collective bargaining agreement rather than under a statute. He said that the arbitrator was not bound by legal principles and that the award should not be vacated simply because the court might have decided the case differently. He rejected defendant's argument that managerial prerogative was involved and that the matter was not properly the subject of arbitration. He also pointed out that if the board thought that the matter was not arbitrable, it should have moved before the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) for a determination of that issue. Finally, he determined that there was no statutory basis to set aside the award. On July 31, 1981 the judge signed an order granting plaintiff summary judgment confirming the award. Defendant appeals from that order.
Unquestionably the trial judge was correct in his statement that PERC was the proper body to determine whether the dispute was appropriate for arbitration. See Ridgefield Park Ed. Ass'n v. Ridgefield Park Bd. of Ed., 78 N.J. 144, 153-155 (1978); Camden Vocational School Bd. of Ed. v. Cam/Voc Teachers Ass'n, 183 N.J. Super. 206, 213 (App.Div.1982). Thus, we could remand this matter to PERC. But we are loath to do so. This controversy is already six years old and the end seems not in sight. There have been numerous judicial, administrative and arbitration hearings. There have been two appeals to this court. While we would welcome the expertise of PERC on the issue, the matter is essentially legal in nature. In the circumstances we ...