On appeal from the Superior court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
Approved for Publication February 20, 1996. As Corrected April 8, 1996.
Before Judges Pressler, Keefe and Wefing. The opinion of the court was delivered by Keefe, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Keefe
The opinion of the court was delivered by KEEFE, J.A.D.
Plaintiff, James B. Healy (Healy), appeals only from that part of a final judgment which determined, as a matter of law, that he did not acquire de facto tenure at defendant Fairleigh Dickinson University (University). Consequently, this appeal only involves the complaint brought by Healy against the University. We affirm.
In 1980, Healy became a full time faculty member of the University with the rank of adjunct associate professor. His one year contract for the academic year 1980-81 incorporated the terms of the University's collective bargaining agreement with the American Association of University Professors' contract (the AAUP contract). Thereafter, Healy received a series of one year probationary contracts through the academic year 1984-85. During that period, Healy requested promotion to full professor and was denied the promotion because he lacked a doctorate degree. The lack of the doctorate and his failure to publish were cited in 1984 memos issued by his supervising dean as reasons why Healy could not gain tenure under the AAUP contract. Healy received copies of those memos.
Healy's appointment for his sixth academic year (1985-86) was different from the prior years in that the letter of appointment notified him that his position as associate professor was a "non-tenured position." Healy registered no complaint over that designation.
At the Conclusion of the 1985-86 academic year, Healy received notice that he would be a senior administrator with the rank of associate dean. However, his appointment required that he also teach three credits per semester without additional compensation. Unlike faculty members who were on a monthly payroll, Healy was paid semi-monthly as were other administrators.
As a senior administrator, Healy was subject to annual performance evaluations. The evaluation for his final year at the University showed that his overall performance was "significantly below expectations." On that basis he was discharged in June 1990. Healy maintained that he could not be discharged because he had acquired de facto tenure under the provisions of the AAUP contract and its successor, the 1988 Faculty Handbook (the Handbook) which contained essentially the same provisions for acquiring tenure.
Both the AAUP contract and the Handbook provide, among other things respecting tenure, that a faculty member who completes a probationary period of fourteen continuous academic semesters as a full-time professor shall have tenure upon reaching the next academic semester following the completion of such probationary period. Because of Healy's role as an administrator/instructor beginning in 1986-87, there was a factual dispute as to whether he had served the requisite number of years as a faculty member under the above provision. The jury resolved that issue in Healy's favor.
However, the University maintained that the resolution of that factual dispute was irrelevant to the question of whether Healy had obtained tenure. The University maintained that the clause relied upon by Healy to assert de facto tenure was not inserted in the contract for that purpose. It argued that tenure could not be obtained absent an affirmative grant of tenure by the University in accord with well defined procedures set forth both in the AAUP contract and the Handbook.
In a post-jury verdict bench opinion, the trial Judge agreed with the University. She concluded that the evidence revealed that the AAUP contract and Handbook provisions dealing with tenure were not ambiguous and that their interpretation was a legal question which only the court could resolve. As such, the trial Judge concluded that Healy's reliance on the previously cited provision of the AAUP contract and Handbook was misplaced, and that de facto tenure could not be attained at the University.
On appeal Healy contends that the Judge erred in: (1) substituting her decision for the jury's verdict; (2) disregarding the testimony of his expert witness; and (3) interpreting the AAUP contract and the Handbook provisions under relevant case law and applicable contract ...