On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Union County.
Baime, Conley and Villanueva. The opinion of the court was delivered by Villanueva, J.A.D. Conley, J.A.D., Concurring.
Plaintiff school board appeals from a Chancery Division order confirming an arbitration award that rescinded a board decision to withhold a salary increment from one of its teachers. We reverse.
MaeDelle Horton (grievant) is a tenured teacher who began her services with the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education (Board) in 1977. The parties are governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (Agreement) covering the period July 1, 1988 to June 30, 1991. On April 26, 1990, she was informed that the Board intended to withhold her increment and maintain her salary for the 1990-91 school year at the 1989-90 level. The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Education Association (Association), grievant's collective bargaining agent, filed a grievance on behalf of Ms. Horton challenging the withholding pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-26, et seq.
The Board filed a petition with the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) questioning the arbitrability of this grievance. On February 28, 1991, PERC, exercising its jurisdiction under N.J.S.A. 34:13A-27, found that the grievance was arbitrable. The Board did not appeal PERC's decision.
The parties then proceeded to arbitration before Scott E. Buchheit. The facts, as presented to the arbitrator, included a long record of absenteeism by the grievant. This was acknowledged by the arbitrator in his decision, even though he concluded that the Board acted improperly by withholding the grievant's increment. He stated: "While it [the Board] clearly has a proper interest in the grievant's attendance, it expressed that interest here in a manner that was not valid under the circumstances." He, then, sustained the grievance and rescinded "the disciplinary action [of the Board] of withholding the Grievant's increment" and "restored" the grievant's increment.
On June 2, 1992, the Board obtained an order from the Chancery Division Judge which required the Association to show cause why Arbitrator Buchheit's award should not be vacated. On June 26, 1992, the Judge denied plaintiff's complaint to vacate the arbitration award and, instead, confirmed the award:
Under N.J.S.A. 34:13A-26, disputes involving the withholding of an employee's increment based upon predominantly disciplinary reasons are subject to the grievance procedure. N.J.S.A. 34:13A-27 provides for PERC to determine whether the withholding of the increment is predominantly disciplinary. If so, the dispute must be resolved via the grievance process. Ibid. PERC merely decides the forum in which the issues will be resolved. PERC specifically stated in this case, that it did not and could not "consider whether an increment withholding was with or without just cause." Finally, under N.J.S.A. 34:13A-29, the grievance procedure requires binding arbitration as the last step with regard to disputes.
The scope of an arbitrator's jurisdiction and authority is determined by and cannot exceed the terms of the collective negotiations agreement. Ridgefield Park Educ. Ass'n v. Ridgefield Park Bd. of Educ., 78 N.J. 144, 154, 393 A.2d 278 (1978); Harsen v. Board of Educ., 132 N.J. Super. 365, 371, 333 A.2d 580 (Law Div.1975); Communications Workers v. Monmouth County Bd. of Social Services, 96 N.J. 442, 448, 476 A.2d 777 (1984); Kearny P.B.A. Local 21 v. Town of Kearny, 81 N.J. 208, 217, 405 A.2d 393 (1979).
While there is a strong presumption in favor of arbitration awards, the courts should vacate an award where the arbitrator has "exceeded or so imperfectly executed [his] powers that a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made." N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8d.
In this matter, the scope of the arbitrator's jurisdiction and authority was set forth in the parties' Agreement. Article 4, section D states:
Employment increments, i.e., a step up on the Salary Guide based on service or additional salary raises which may be authorized by the Board, are not automatic. Such increments and/or raises shall be awarded based upon the recommendation of the ...