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Stigliano v. St. Rose High School

Decided: December 17, 1984.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Monmouth County.

Michels, Petrella and Baime. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.


[198 NJSuper Page 522] This appeal presents difficult questions pertaining to the scope of judicial review of decisions emanating out of grievance procedures set forth in an employment contract. Plaintiff, a non-tenured teacher, instituted this action in the Superior Court, Chancery Division, seeking to enjoin defendants, a private high school, its director and principal, from

terminating his employment. Other counts of the complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages based upon allegations that defendants maliciously interfered with plaintiff's prospective economic advantage. The principal thrust of plaintiff's claim was that defendants improperly attempted to discharge him from his teaching position contrary to the terms of a written agreement. In response, defendants contended that the decision not to renew plaintiff's contract was proper and was made in accordance with grievance procedures mandated in the employment agreement. Defendants further asserted that resolution of questions pursuant to the two-step grievance process was intended to be final and binding upon the parties, thereby precluding judicial intervention. Cross motions for summary judgment were submitted limited to plaintiff's demand for injunctive relief. After extensive argument, the trial judge entered summary judgment in defendants' favor. This appeal followed.*fn1

The facts necessary for resolution of the issue presented here are not in dispute. Plaintiff was employed as a teacher at St. Rose High School for the 1980-81 terms. Apparently he performed his duties in a satisfactory manner and his contract was renewed the following year. By letter dated March 11, 1983, the principal, Sister Joan Immaculate, informed plaintiff that the school "did not intend to offer [him] a contract" for the

1983-84 term. No reason was presented supporting defendants' decision. Pursuant to the terms of the employment contract, plaintiff filed a grievance with the school's faculty council. Following its review of plaintiff's arguments, the council denied the grievance. In accordance with the grievance procedure, plaintiff appealed the council's decision to the director. After hearing arguments, the director sustained the action of the council.

Plaintiff then filed a verified complaint and order to show cause contending that his "dismissal" violated the pertinent provisions of the employment agreement. As noted, plaintiff argued that he had been improperly discharged and sought an order compelling defendants to renew his contract. Among the defenses set forth in defendants' answer, it was alleged that plaintiff had made a vague threat implying that he would be less than cooperative if he were granted tenure. It is to be noted that had plaintiff's contract been renewed for a third consecutive year, tenure would have been awarded automatically. Defendants further contended that plaintiff's grievance was properly denied and that the director's decision in that regard was binding.

Following preliminary arguments, the Chancery Division ordered defendants to provide a statement of reasons supporting their decision not to renew plaintiff's contract. The court further directed that the issue again be submitted to the faculty council and, if necessary, to the director pursuant to the grievance procedures set forth in the employment agreement. In compliance with the court's order, Sister Immaculate supplied a written statement which referred to remarks attributed to plaintiff allegedly disclosing his intention not to cooperate with school authorities once granted tenure. Also pursuant to the court's order, the matter was processed through the grievance procedure a second time. We note in that regard that both plaintiff and the school were represented by counsel who were present at all grievance proceedings, but who did not directly participate. At the first step, the five member faculty council

heard the arguments advanced by plaintiff and Sister Immaculate's responses. The council again denied plaintiff's grievance noting that the school's decision not to renew his contract was in accordance with the employment agreement. The grievance was resubmitted to the director who upheld the council's decision. Specifically, the director concluded that plaintiff was a non-tenured teacher and that the school was not duty-bound to renew his teaching contract. Although the record is not entirely clear, the director apparently concluded that the notification period set forth in the contract applied only to the dismissal of teachers and not to decisions pertaining to the non-renewal of their contracts.

Both plaintiff's and defendants' arguments at the trial level and on appeal are premised upon their respective interpretations of the employment agreement. Unfortunately, the eight page contract was prepared by the school's teachers' association without the assistance of an attorney and is inartfully drafted. The dispute here centers about the contractual provisions governing tenure. They provide in pertinent part as follows:

SECTION 1. Tenure will be granted after satisfactory completion of three consecutive years and one (1) day. At that time a letter of ...

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