On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Handler, Garibaldi and Stein. For affirmance -- Justices Clifford, Pollock and O'Hern. Pollock, J., dissenting. Justices Clifford and O'Hern join in this opinion.
In this case, a tenured school employee alleged that her employer, the municipal board of education, wrongfully denied her request to extend her retirement date. Following a long and tortuous journey through the administrative process, the State Board of Education (State Board) found that the local board could deny the employee's request. The Appellate Division, one judge dissenting, affirmed. Plaintiff appeals as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(2).
Anne Hall was employed as a tenured school secretary for defendant, the Board of Education of the Township of Jefferson (the Board). By letter dated April 16, 1984 (1984 letter), she notified the Board of her intention to retire, writing to Superintendent of Schools Sheldon Rubin:
This is to advise you that it is my intention to retire at the end of the 1986-87 school year, effective June 30, 1987.
At this time, I would like to request any and all special retirement allowances to which I am now or may become entitled.
On May 14, 1984, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the Board approved Hall's retirement, effective on June 30, 1987.
Hall's reference to "special retirement allowances" stemmed in part from Article XVI, Paragraph E, of the collective negotiations agreement between the Board and the Jefferson Township Education Association. That provision addresses compensation to employees "who reach retirement eligibility status prior to the 26 and 30 year period" and who "indicate to the Board their intention to retire' (emphasis added). Annual payments were to be made for each year of notice that the employee provided so that an employee would receive greater "longevity payments" as the number of years of notice (up to a maximum of five) increased. More senior employees were entitled to greater annual "longevity payments" than their less-experienced counterparts. Hall received $1500 pursuant to the contractual provision.
Subsequent to the Board's approval of Hall's "intention to retire," Hall's husband died and one of her children was afflicted with a serious illness. In view of her financial status, Hall wrote to the Board on February 26, 1986, to request a two-year extension of her retirement date to June 30, 1989. On March 21, 1986, Rubin responded that "[a]ny such extension as may be granted [would] be based upon [her] performance during the 1986-87 school year."
In January 1987, Hall's supervisor submitted Hall's performance evaluation. Although the evaluation showed average or above-average marks in eight of nine categories, it indicated a "reluctance to cooperate" and charged that Hall "handles problems, but does so with reluctance and minimal follow through." Hall submitted an angry, three-and-one-half-page response to her evaluation, repudiating the negative comments and criticizing her supervisor.
At a closed Board meeting on March 17, 1987, Assistant Superintendent and Board Secretary Maurice Meloon reported on Hall's performance evaluation. Meloon indicated that he originally thought that it was an overall "good evaluation." He concluded, however, based on Hall's response to it, both in writing and at a meeting set up for the purpose of reviewing her situation, that Hall's work was satisfactory but that her attitude was terrible; consequently, he could not recommend to the Board that her request to withdraw her retirement notice be honored. The following month, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the Board accepted Meloon's recommendation. Meloon subsequently wrote to Hall:
This is to reaffirm the Board's action taken at the May 14, 1984 Board of Ed. meeting accepting your retirement effective June 30, 1987 as requested in your letter of April 10 [sic: April 16__, 1984.
Despite Hall's protest, the Board remained firm, and the school principal informed Hall that her retirement would be effective on July 1, 1987, and that she ...