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Ocean City Board of Education v. Ocean City Educational Supportive Staff Association

March 27, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Equity Part, Cape May County, C-83-06.

Per curiam.


Argued February 25, 2008

Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.

Appellants, Dean Spencer ("Spencer") and the Ocean City Educational Supportive Staff Association ("the labor union"), seek review of an order entered by the Chancery Division on January 12, 2007. That order granted summary judgment in favor of respondent, the Ocean City Board of Education ("the School Board"). At the same time, the Chancery Division rejected appellants' cross-motion for summary judgment, which had sought to enforce the prior determination of a grievance arbitrator. The arbitrator had found that the School Board lacked just cause to dismiss Spencer before the expiration of his one-year contract, and that he therefore should be reinstated to his employment as a security officer with the Ocean City School District.

In essence, the Chancery Division ruled that the arbitrator had made a mistake of law in not honoring the School Board's individual contract with Spencer, which stated that the contract could "at any time [be] terminated by either party giving to the other three (3) weeks written notice to do so," without requiring any demonstration of just cause. The Chancery judge found that this unqualified right of termination was not nullified by the terms of the labor union's collective negotiated agreement ("CNA") with the School Board, which provides, among other things, that employees such as Spencer covered by the CNA cannot be disciplined "without just cause."

In the course of his ruling, the Chancery judge specifically relied upon this court's unpublished opinions addressing similar issues in Pascack Valley Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. Pascack Valley Reg'l High Sch. Support Staff Ass'n, No. A-2599-04 (App. Div. Oct. 11, 2005), and Northvale Bd. of Educ. v. Northvale Educ. Ass'n, No. A-2778-04 (App. Div. Oct. 11, 2005). In both Pascack Valley and Northvale, our court sustained a school district's mid-contract discharge of a school employee with proper advance notice but without a finding of just cause, deeming those employees' individual contracts unaltered by the terms of the districts' collective negotiations agreements.

Subsequent to the filing of the present appeal, our Supreme Court simultaneously issued, on October 29, 2007, decisions in Pascack Valley, 192 N.J. 489 (2007), and in Northvale, 192 N.J. 501 (2007). In Pascack Valley, supra, 192 N.J. at 495, the Court unanimously reversed our holding that the school district had the right to terminate the employee without cause, finding instead that the terms of the CNA in that case controlled the discharge as a grievable disciplinary action. The Court reached that result after performing a detailed analysis of the language of the CNA and the employee's individual agreement, and then applying its construction to the facts. Id. at 498-99. By a vote of 3-3 in Northvale, supra, 192 N.J. at 501, an equally-divided Court affirmed our determination that the CNA there did not trump the terms of the employee's individual contract with the school district, and that the employee's discharge was not grievable before an arbitrator.

In light of the Supreme Court's supervening decisions in Pascack Valley and Northvale and the Chancery Division's explicit reliance on our unpublished prior holdings in those cases when it granted respondent summary judgment in January 2007, we elect to remand this matter to the Chancery Division for reconsideration in light of the Court's most recent case law. Although we are mindful that the outcomes in Pascack Valley and Northvale are arguably disharmonious, but potentially reconcilable, and may raise further questions of law that ultimately may be resolved by a fully-constituted Supreme Court, we are loathe to attempt to apply the principles of those cases here without the considered analysis of the Chancery Division, particularly given its prior reliance on our court's decisions in those cases.

Moreover, the primacy-of-agreement issues implicated by Pascack Valley and Northvale appear to involve mixed questions of law and fact that are best suited, in the first instance, for development and examination in the trial court. Without deciding the admissibility of parol evidence here, there may be factual matters outside the present record that may shed light upon such matters as (1) the shared intention of the parties to the CNA and any ambiguities within its provisions, (2) the general practices and customs of the parties to the CNA, and (3) the CNA's intended relationship to the individual contracts of employees in the school district.*fn2

We appreciate that, although counsel at oral argument before us were initially receptive to a remand, they have since conferred with their clients and have advised us that they would prefer not to have the matter reconsidered by the trial court. Nevertheless, we have concluded that it is jurisprudentially wisest to have the matter reconsidered by the Chancery Division in an expeditious fashion, particularly if the trial court finds it necessary or beneficial to expand the record in order to apply the Supreme Court's recent decisions. See Jersey City Redev. Agency v. Mack Prop. Co. No. 3, 280 N.J. Super. 553, 563 (App. Div. 1995).

Accordingly, the matter is remanded for the Chancery Division's prompt reconsideration of the January 12, 2007 order, in light of Pascack Valley and Northvale. We do not retain jurisdiction, although either party is free to pursue ...

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