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In re Military Service Credit for State Teachers

June 14, 2005


On appeal from the Final Administrative Decision of the Merit System Board.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yannotti, J.A.D.



Argued telephonically May 10, 2005

Before Judges Petrella,*fn1 Lintner and Yannotti.

The Communication Workers of America AFL-CIO (CWA) appeals from a final determination of the Merit System Board (Board) in which the Board concluded that teachers employed by departments and agencies of the State government are not entitled to military service credits for compensation purposes pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11. We affirm.

This dispute arose in November 2000 when certain persons employed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) at the South Woods State Prison requested that they be provided with military service credits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11 for purposes of determining their compensation. The DOC concluded that the teachers were entitled to the credits but advised that the manner in which the statute would be implemented would have to be determined by the Department of Personnel (DOP) and the Department of Treasury. The employees thereupon brought the matter to the attention of the CWA and in June 2001, CWA's counsel wrote to the Commissioner of Personnel requesting that State agencies employing teachers be instructed to provide military service credits pursuant to the statute. In August 2003, the DOP advised the CWA that N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11 did not apply to teachers employed by the State government. The CWA filed a timely appeal with the Board and on March 2, 2004 the Board issued its final determination. This appeal followed.

In addressing the CWA's contention that N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11 applies to teachers in State institutions and agencies, we begin with the well established principle that the courts have "only a limited role to play in reviewing the actions of other branches of government." Matter of Musick, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996). We may intervene only in those "rare circumstances in which an agency['s] action is clearly inconsistent with its statutory mission or other state policy." Ibid. Our role is to determine whether the agency's determination is arbitrary, capricious or otherwise contrary to law. George Harms Constr. v. Turnpike Authority, 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994). On questions of statutory interpretation, we will defer to the interpretation given to a statute by the agency charged with its enforcement, recognizing that the judiciary remains the final authority on statutory construction. Koch v. Director, Div. of Taxation, 157 N.J. 1, 8 (1999)(citing New Jersey Guild of Hearing Aid Dispensers v. Long, 75 N.J. 544, 575 (1978)).

The primary goal in any matter requiring interpretation of a statute is to discern and implement legislative intent. State v. Reiner, 180 N.J. 307, 311 (2004). The first step in our analysis is to consider the statutory language because the clearest indication of a statute's meaning is its plain language. Cty. of Camden v. South Jersey Port Corp., 312 N.J. Super. 387, 396 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 157 N.J. 542 (1998)(citing National Waste Recycling, Inc. v. Middlesex Cty. Improvement Auth., 150 N.J. 209, 223 (1997)). "If the meaning of the text is clear and unambiguous on its face, we enforce that meaning." Reiner, supra, 180 N.J. at 311.

We turn then to N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11, which provides as follows:

Every member who, after July 1, 1940, has served or hereafter shall serve, in the active military or naval service of the United States or of this state, including active service in the women's army corps, the women's reserve of the naval reserve, or any similar organization authorized by the United States to serve with the army or navy, in time of war or emergency, or for or during any period of training, or pursuant to or in connection with the operation of any system of selective service, shall be entitled to receive equivalent years of employment credit for such service as if he had been employed for the same period of time in some publicly owned and operated college, school or institution of learning in this or any other state or territory of the United States, except that the period of such service shall not be credited toward more than four employment or adjustment increments.

Nothing contained in this section shall be construed to reduce the number of employment or adjustment increments to which any member may be entitled under the terms of any law, or regulation, or action of any employing board or officer, of this state, relating to leaves of absence.

[N.J.S.A. 18A:29-11].

The term "teaching staff member" is defined in N.J.S.A. 18A:1-1 to mean: a member of the professional staff of any district or regional board of education, or any board of education of a county vocational school, holding office, position or employment of such character that the qualifications, for such office, position or employment, require him to hold a valid and effective standard, provisional or emergency certificate, ...

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