On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Special Civil Part, Small Claims, Monmouth County, SC-4626-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 11, 2007
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Messano.
Defendant Children's Center of Monmouth County appeals from the entry of judgment in favor of plaintiff LaWanda Pipkin. Following a bench trial, the trial judge found that the $2,353 longevity bonus reflected in plaintiff's 2006-2007 employment contract was the result of a unilateral mistake. Additionally, the judge concluded that because there was no evidence that plaintiff had agreed to accept a lesser amount, the contract could not be reformed. The judge entered judgment in favor of plaintiff for $2,353, plus costs. We now reverse.
The evidence presented at trial was largely undisputed. Defendant is a private school for special needs children with over 400 employees, including 237 teachers' assistants. All of defendant's employees enter into annual employment contracts from July 1 through June 30 for twelve-month employees, and from September 1 through June 30 for ten-month employees. In addition, according to defendant's Coordinator of Personnel and Human Resources (HR), Diana Derasmo (Derasmo), defendant pays teachers and teachers' assistants annual longevity bonuses to encourage employees to remain employed with the school. Teachers' assistants who have been employed by defendant for less than two years are paid $235 in longevity pay.
On October 31, 2005, defendant hired plaintiff as a "teacher aide." Because she began work in the middle of the 2005-2006 school year, plaintiff's first employment contract was for eight months, with a salary of $13,089.87. In addition to her salary, Paragraph 8 of the contract provided:
8. In addition to the contracted amount specified above, the EMPLOYER agrees to pay the EMPLOYEE a longevity payment of $235.00. The longevity payment will be paid in a separate check in December of the contract year. The EMPLOYEE must be employed on the date of payment in order to receive the longevity payment. (Third emphasis added).
Plaintiff received her first $235 longevity bonus approximately two months later.
On July 1, 2006, plaintiff signed a renewal contact for the 2006-2007 school year. Paragraph 8 of the renewal contract read as follows:
8. In addition to the contracted amount specified above, the EMPLOYER agrees to pay the EMPLOYEE a longevity payment of $2,353.00. The longevity payment will be paid in a separate check in December of the contract year. The EMPLOYEE must be employed on the date of payment in order to receive the longevity payment. (Third emphasis added).
Plaintiff testified that shortly after she received her 2006-2007 contract, she had a question about her "days" that she raised with Derasmo, who, according to plaintiff, was dismissive towards her. Specifically, plaintiff was told that she had two days to fix her problem with her "days," so she assumed defendant also had two days to fix the longevity bonus reflected in the contract. When the days turned into months and nothing happened, she assumed the amount was correct. However, during cross-examination, plaintiff acknowledged that she discussed longevity bonuses with her co-workers and that "[s]ome people said three [hundred], some said two [hundred] seventy five, some said it goes up every year." She also testified that she understood that teachers' assistants did not receive over $2,000 in longevity pay but "[o]nce [Derasmo] was short with [her] about the days, it was kind of anger. [She] just didn't want to talk about any more of the contract."
On December 8, 2006, defendant handed out the longevity bonus checks. Plaintiff's check was for $235. She immediately notified HR that this amount did not correspond with the $2,353 longevity bonus stated in her contract. When defendant refused to pay that amount, plaintiff commenced this action in the Small Claims section of the Special Civil Part to recover her claimed damages.
The trial judge determined that the $2,353 longevity bonus in plaintiff's 2006-2007 contract was not a mutual mistake but, rather, defendant's unilateral mistake attributable solely to defendant's negligence. As such, the judge concluded the contract could not be reformed because there was no evidence that plaintiff had agreed to accept less than the amount set forth in the contract. The ...