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New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Local 196

April 23, 2007

NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE AUTHORITY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LOCAL 196, I.F.P.T.E., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court must determine whether a public-sector arbitration award reinstating a Turnpike Authority employee violated public policy and therefore should be vacated.

Jason Glassey is a toll collector employed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (Authority), Garden State Parkway (Parkway) Division. One day, Glassey departed from work following his morning shift "[f]eeling a lot of stress" and "a little annoyed." En route home and still in uniform, Glassey was in the left lane of the Parkway behind a slow-moving white van. Upon passing the van, Glassey fired a paintball gun, striking the van's front windshield and passenger-side window and paneling. As a result, Glassey was charged with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and interference with transportation. Glassey pled guilty to the disorderly person's offense of interference with transportation. The trial court sentenced Glassey to two years probation, conditioned on his continued psychiatric counseling. The court determined that N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(a)(2), which requires forfeiture of public office on conviction of an offense that involves or touches one's position or employment, was not implicated. The county prosecutor agreed with the trial court's decision not to require job forfeiture.

The Authority suspended Glassey without pay and charged him with violating Item 31 of the "General Rules and Regulations" contained in the Toll Collector's Manual, which provides that "[e]mployees must not commit any act which will be prejudicial to the good order or discipline of this Authority." Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, a disciplinary hearing was held before the Director of Toll Collection. Following the hearing, the Director terminated Glassey's employment.

Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement, a mutually-selected arbitrator heard Glassey's grievance. The arbitrator reinstated Glassey to his former position, but imposed an eleven-month, unpaid suspension, and required periodic psychological evaluations. The Authority filed a complaint in the Chancery Division, seeking to vacate the award. The Chancery Division upheld the arbitral decision. The Authority appealed and the Appellate Division, in an unpublished, per curiam opinion, reversed the Arbitrator's award and reinstated the termination sanction because the Arbitrator failed "to give due consideration to a clear mandate of public policy."

The Supreme Court granted Glassey's petition for certification.

HELD: The public policy exception to the review of labor arbitration awards, and heightened judicial scrutiny, are triggered only when the arbitrator's award -- not the grievant's underlying conduct -- violates a clear mandate of public policy embodied in statute, regulation, or legal precedent. The Court reverses the Appellate Division's judgment because no clear mandate of public policy was implicated by the present award reinstating the employee to his position as a toll collector.

1. New Jersey law encourages the use of arbitration to resolve labor-management disputes. In public sector arbitration, courts will accept an arbitrator's award so long as the award is "reasonably debatable." Our courts provide arbitral decisions substantial deference and that deference corresponds with federal jurisprudence, which this Court has repeatedly consulted for guidance. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court articulated a public policy exception, holding that courts may not enforce collective bargaining agreements that are contrary to "well defined and dominant" public policy. This Court also has recognized a public policy exception, observing that a court "may vacate an award if it is contrary to existing law or public policy." (Pp. 8-12)

2. In light of this Court's jurisprudence and the similar holdings of other courts in the labor arbitration context, the Court concludes that, for purposes of judicial review of labor arbitration awards, public policy sufficient to vacate an award must be embodied in legislative enactments, administrative regulations, or legal precedents. (Pp. 12-13)

3. New Jersey's seminal public policy exception case, Weiss v. Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey, 143 N.J. 420 (1996), narrowly focused on the resolution -- the arbitrator's award -- and not the conduct or contractual provision prompting the arbitration. United States Supreme Court precedent prescribes a similar result, supporting a narrow view of the public policy exception. In addition, this narrow view has garnered significant support among legal commentators and jurists. Nevertheless, some courts have opted to focus on the underlying conduct, rather than the award itself. Adoption of that broad view of the public policy exception poses a risk to the finality of arbitration awards and jeopardizes the stability of labor relations. Additionally, the broad view may open the floodgates to substantial litigation in our courts whenever a party seeks to set aside an award by invocation of the public interest, for the reality is that numerous public sector awards -- and private sector awards as well -- often touch the public interest, either directly or indirectly. Courts must not allow the invocation of a convenient talisman -- "public policy" -- unless circumstances demand it. Otherwise, public policy becomes an excuse to set aside an award. The Court therefore rejects the broad view of the public policy exception and holds that the public policy exception and Weiss's heightened judicial scrutiny of awards are triggered when a labor arbitration award -- not the grievant's conduct -- violates a clear mandate of public policy. If reinstatement of an employee does not violate public policy that is embodied in statute, regulation, or legal precedent, then an award requiring reinstatement does not contravene public policy. (Pp. 13-21)

4. In the present dispute, although the Appellate panel correctly looked to statutory law for declarations of public policy, it should have concentrated on the Arbitrator's award rather than on Glassey's conduct. Although Glassey's conduct violated the State's public policy against aggressive driving, his reinstatement to his position as a Parkway toll collector is not contrary to any embodiment of public policy. Therefore, we find that the award reinstating Glassey to his position as a toll collector did not implicate any statutory, regulatory, or precedential embodiment of public policy. (Pp. 21-22)

5. A court may not substitute its judgment for that of a labor arbitrator and must uphold an arbitral decision so long as the award is "reasonably debatable." The award reinstating Glassey "without any back pay entitlement" imposed an eleven-month, unpaid suspension, and return-to-work conditions. This award was not the proverbial "slap on the wrist." It was a considerable penalty that recognized economic realities and social norms. Additionally, deference to an arbitrator's award reinstating an employee to his former position following admittedly serious misconduct is consistent with arbitration jurisprudence across the nation. The Court, however, does not understate the imprudence of Glassey's conduct. As the decisional law reveals, courts will vacate arbitral awards reinstating terminated employees, but generally reserve such intervention for factual circumstances more serious than those presented here. Moreover, although reasonable minds may disagree concerning whether termination or reinstatement is the appropriate remedy, the parties have delegated the duty to resolve that dispute to the sound discretion of a mutually-selected arbitrator, and they received an award that was, at the very least, "reasonably debatable." (Pp. 22-27)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for the entry of an Order enforcing the Arbitrator's award.

JUSTICES LONG, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI'S opinion. JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and ALBIN did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Zazzali

Argued March 5, 2007

On his way home from work, a toll collector employed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (Authority) fired a paintball gun at a slower moving vehicle. That misconduct led to the employee's termination. Nearly one year later, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, a mutually-selected arbitrator heard the employee's grievance. The arbitrator reinstated the employee to his former position, but imposed an eleven-month, unpaid suspension and required periodic psychological evaluations. The Chancery Division upheld the arbitral decision, but the Appellate Division vacated the award, finding that the arbitrator failed to appropriately consider public policy.

In this appeal, we must determine whether a public-sector arbitration award reinstating an Authority employee violated public policy and therefore should be vacated. We hold that a court may vacate an arbitration award in a labor dispute on public policy grounds when the award, rather than the conduct giving rise to the dispute, violates public policy embodied in statute, regulation, or legal precedent. Here, we conclude that the present award -- the remedial action ordered by the arbitrator -- did not contravene a clear mandate of public policy. That result fosters the expectation of finality in labor arbitration, improves the stability of employee-employer relations, and reaffirms New Jersey's long-standing tradition of deference to arbitration awards.

I.

Jason Glassey is a toll collector employed in the Authority's Garden State Parkway (Parkway) Division. One day, Glassey departed from work following his morning shift "[f]eeling a lot of stress" and "a little annoyed." En route home and still in uniform, Glassey was mired in the left lane of the Parkway behind a slow-moving, white van. In Glassey's own words, the following transpired:

I came up behind a line of [two] cars behind a white work van that was driving in the left lane and pacing the car in the right lane next to him. After[] a couple minutes the other [two] cars in front of me finally sneaked around the white van and passed him on the right. The previous Monday I had been playing paintball with my friends, and I still had my paintball marker gun in my truck. As I saw a chance to pass the white van I began to pass him on the right. In a moment of anger, and extreme stupidity, I grabbed the paintball gun and fired several shots at the passenger window.

Glassey shot at least four balls of blue paint at the van, striking the vehicle's front windshield and passenger-side window and paneling. Jorge Morales, the driver of the van, observed Glassey laughing as he sped by. Although Morales was not injured and did not suffer significant property damage, he nonetheless pursued Glassey, hoping to notify the authorities of Glassey's license plate number. When Morales spotted a New Jersey State Trooper, he flagged down the officer and reported the incident. Minutes later, the Trooper stopped Glassey as he exited the Parkway. Glassey ...


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