On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, No. L-2437-02.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wefing, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS
Before Judges Wefing, Payne and C.S. Fisher.
Plaintiff Williams Scotsman, Inc. appeals from a trial court order granting summary judgment to defendant Garfield Board of Education. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we reverse.
This litigation is an outgrowth of the continuing efforts of the Supreme Court to assure equal educational opportunities for the children of this state, no matter in which district they reside. Garfield is one of the original twenty-eight districts identified in Abbott v. Burke, 119 N.J. 287 (1990) (Abbott II) as evidencing special needs, generally referred to as "Abbott" districts. In late 2000 Garfield learned that by September 2001 the Abbott districts were required to have in place all-day pre-school programs for the three-to four-year-old children in their districts. Garfield, however, did not have the physical accommodations available in which it could conduct such a program. Plaintiff Scotsman is in the business of fabricating and supplying temporary buildings. To comply with the directive that it provide such an all-day pre-school program, the Garfield Board of Education passed resolution 12-294-00 on December 19, 2000, authorizing Edward F. Izbicki, Sr., the Board's business administrator and secretary, "to arrange with William Scottsman [sic] for the lease of at least 10 trailers for Preschool 3 and 4 year olds." Pursuant to that authority, Izbicki executed a purchase order with Scotsman on March 23, 2001, which stated, in its entirety, "As per Drawing Dated 2-16-01 Job #UIS00895 Price Not [t]o exceed $13,950 60 Months." The superintendent of schools initialed the purchase order to indicate his approval. Scotsman filed suit when Garfield refused to accept delivery after Scotsman completed its work.
The directive relating to all-day pre-school programs affected all of the Abbott districts, and in February 2001 representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) met with representatives from those districts, including Garfield, to discuss plans to meet this deadline. The DOE was planning to obtain temporary modular facilities for all of the Abbott districts, but Garfield told the department officials that it was dealing directly with Scotsman to obtain its own temporary facilities. Garfield explained to the DOE that it was anticipating receiving funds from the Economic Development Agency (EDA), and it was planning to use these moneys to pay Scotsman.*fn1 The DOE representatives expressed no objections or misgivings about Garfield's plan. In addition, Izbecki testified that when he saw the plans proposed by the DOE for the modular units it would be supplying to the Abbott districts, he considered them "tin cans" and unacceptable from an educational perspective.
Scotsman has done business with a number of school districts in New Jersey for a number of years. It was aware that Garfield's status as an Abbott district qualified it to receive additional funds from the State. Garfield advised Scotsman that it was planning to use EDA money to pay for these trailers. Scotsman's area manager, Eric Anderson, testified that he asked Izbecki on several occasions whether Garfield could proceed in this manner, as opposed to soliciting public bids. Izbecki continually assured him that, based on the Board's December 2000 resolution, there was no need to solicit bids. Izbecki also assured Anderson that Garfield was not dependent upon the State to pay for these units, because it had other funds available.
One reason for Scotsman's inquiry in this regard, apart from its general knowledge obtained through years of doing business in New Jersey, was the fact that at the same time that it was contracting with Garfield, Scotsman was submitting a bid to the DOE to supply temporary facilities for the remaining Abbott districts to meet the September 2001 deadline for full-day pre-school programs.
Scotsman proceeded to build the facility designed by Garfield. It is twenty thousand square feet and designed to accommodate 150 pupils. When it was completed, however, the State refused to permit Garfield to use State funds to pay Scotsman because Garfield had contracted with Scotsman directly, without soliciting bids in accordance with the requirements of the Public School Contracts Law, N.J.S.A. 18A:18A-1 to -59. Garfield then refused to accept delivery of the completed modular facility that Scotsman had built in compliance with Garfield's design. Garfield took the position that its contract with Scotsman was void in light of the failure to meet the requirements of the public bidding statute.
Eventually, the DOE delivered to Garfield temporary units for its pre-school program that it had arranged to purchase through a public bid. According to the record before us, the State was able to deliver these units to Garfield because another Abbott district had deemed them so inferior, it had refused to accept them. According to the trial court's letter opinion in this matter, the units supplied by the State were "less aesthetically pleasing, less educationally sound, and more expensive" than the unit Garfield had contracted to obtain from Scotsman.
After discovery was completed, the matter was presented to the trial court on cross-motions for summary judgment. Scotsman contended that Garfield should be estopped from relying on the public schools bidding statute. The trial court, however, declined to apply estoppel to Garfield, finding that Scotsman should have been aware of the requirements of the bidding statute. It considered the contract void ab initio and unenforceable.
Having reviewed this record, we are satisfied that the trial court erred when it precluded Scotsman as a matter of law from invoking the doctrine ...