On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal and reinstatement -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For affirmance -- None.
The narrow question on this appeal is whether the petition of two teachers to the Commissioner of Education (the Commissioner) is time barred by N.J.A.C. 6:24-1.2, which requires that such a petition be filed within ninety days of the challenged action. In the petition, the teachers sought credit on the salary scale for time spent on sabbatical. The teachers, however, did not file their petitions until more than nine months after the expiration of the ninety-day period.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that the petition had been filed out-of-time. The Commissioner affirmed the findings of the ALJ, and the State Board of Education (the State Board) affirmed the decision of the Commissioner.
In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division reversed the State Board, reasoning that the teachers had a statutory right to credit on the salary scale without regard to performance and that the time bar of N.J.A.C. 6:24-1.2 could not affect that right. We granted certification. 95 N.J. 205 (1983). We now reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate the decision of the State Board.
The undisputed facts are that Arlene Koumjian and Michel Spratford are tenured teachers employed by the North Plainfield Board of Education (the Board). Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the Board and the North Plainfield Education Association (the Association), the teachers took a sabbatical leave for the second semester of the 1978-79 academic year to pursue full-time graduate study. Each received 75% of full pay and earned a master's degree while on sabbatical.
At the beginning of their sabbaticals, Koumjian was on step seven and Spratford was on step eight of the bachelor's degree category of the salary guide. When they returned to classroom teaching in September 1979, each remained on the same step, although in the master's degree category for the 1979-80 year. They did not receive credit for time spent on sabbatical for purposes of advancing along the salary scale, but they received a salary increment because of their placement in the master's degree category.
On November 12, 1979, the Association filed a grievance with the Board claiming that the failure to move the teachers to the next step on the salary guide for the school year 1979-80 constituted a violation of the negotiated agreement. The Board denied the grievance and the Association sought arbitration. On July 22, 1980, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Board, finding that the agreement between the Board and the Association did not provide for the accumulation of credit on the salary scale for time spent on sabbatical. The arbitrator found further that the Board's practice was to deny credit for time spent on sabbatical and that the Association unsuccessfully had attempted to amend the labor agreement in 1978 by adding a provision that a teacher on sabbatical "shall not suffer loss of status on salary guide." The teachers neither denied knowledge of the Board's practice nor sought to correct or modify the award. See N.J.S.A. 2A:24-7.
The following school year, 1980-81, each teacher advanced one step on the guide -- i.e., Koumjian advanced to step eight and Spratford to step nine. On September 29, 1980, the Association filed a petition with the Commissioner requesting an order directing the Board to advance the teachers an additional step, i.e., to move Koumjian to step nine and Spratford to step ten. In essence, the teachers sought prospective relief that would obviate the denial of credit for the time spent on sabbatical and would reverse the Board's decision for future years.
Under N.J.S.A. 52:14F-1 to -11, the Commissioner transferred the matter as a contested case to the Office of Administrative Law. The ALJ granted a motion to dismiss the petition as having been filed out-of-time, finding that petitioners knew that they would not receive credit for time spent on sabbatical when they received their pay checks around September 15, 1979. Nonetheless, petitioners did not file their petition with the Commissioner until more than a year later on September 29, 1980. Because this appeal focuses on the timeliness ...