On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(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).
The Court is asked to interpret N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) and to determine whether it mandates school districts to rehire a formerly disabled employee and, if so, whether there are any limits on that imperative.
In 1968, Charlotte Klumb was hired as an elementary school teacher in the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District ("District"). Following several leaves of absence in order to obtain treatment for alcoholism and mental health issues, the District filed tenure charges against Klumb and placed her on "voluntary sick leave disability" without pay. On April 11, 1988, Klumb submitted a disability application to the Teacher's Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), which was subsequently approved. In early 1994, Klumb believed that she had been rehabilitated and requested that TPAF reconsider its finding that she was disabled from teaching. When TPAF denied that application, Klumb appealed.
In 1998, Klumb renewed her request, having amassed an array of medical reports demonstrating that she no longer suffered from a disability and that she was able to perform her duties as a teacher. On October 2, 1998, TPAF determined that Klumb's disability had "disappeared or substantially diminished" and ordered the District to "reinstate Ms. Klumb to her former duty or any other comparable duty which may be assigned to her." The District sought a hearing. TPAF again wrote to the District on December 16, 1998, and stated that the applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40, "does not address reemployment nor does it require an employer to reemploy the member." Relying on that letter, the District refused to rehire Klumb as initially ordered. The District, however, interviewed Klumb for an elementary school teacher position on March 1, 1999, but she was not hired.
Klumb took no action until April 29, 2002, when she filed a complaint in the Superior Court, Law Division, demanding reinstatement, effective as of TPAF's determination that she was no longer disabled, along with damages, attorneys' fees, and interest. The District moved for summary judgment. The trial judge denied the motion, and instead transferred the matter to the Commissioner of Education ("Commissioner"), ordering Klumb to exhaust her administrative remedies.
On December 22, 2004, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled in favor of the District, concluding that N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) does not require the rehiring of a formerly disabled teacher. On June 16, 2005, the Commissioner rejected the decision of the ALJ and ruled that the statute mandates the rehiring of a formerly disabled employee. The Commissioner ordered Klumb's reinstatement "as of March 1, 1999, with all emoluments and back pay to which she is entitled." The Commissioner, however, rejected Klumb's claims for compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys' fees, and judgment interest. The District appealed and moved for a stay of the Commissioner's decision, which was denied. The State Board of Education affirmed the decision of the Commissioner regarding Klumb's reinstatement.
The District appealed to the Appellate Division. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the State Board.
The Supreme Court granted the District's petition for certification and granted amicus curiae status to the New Jersey School Boards Association and to the New Jersey Education Association.
HELD: Under N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a), a school district must return a formerly disabled teacher to the next available opening in the position that he or she held at the time of the disability retirement, so long as the teacher meets the standards set by the State Board of Education for that position, i.e., a valid teaching certificate and endorsements.
1. When interpreting a statute, the Court's main objective is to further the Legislature's intent. To discern the Legislature's intent, courts first turn to the plain language of the statute in question and will give words their ordinary meaning absent any direction from the Legislature to the contrary. Where the plain meaning does not point the court to a "clear and unambiguous result," it then considers extrinsic evidence from which it hopes to glean the Legislature's intent, including legislative history and statutory context. In addition, interpretations of the statute and cognate enactments by agencies empowered to enforce them are given substantial deference. Klumb's argument is that N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) mandates reemployment. The District counters that the statute is discretionary -- that is, the employee must make herself available, but the school district is free to rehire her or not, as it sees fit. Both views are rooted in the words of the statute. Thus, the Court views the language as ambiguous and therefore looks outside it for clues to its meaning. (Pp. 8-13)
2. The predecessor to N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40, enacted in 1955, provided for an annual medical examination and left it to the "discretion of the employer" whether or not to restore an employee to active service. 1966 amendments continued the medical evaluation and discretionary language, but added that the employee "shall report for duty" if he or she could perform same or similar work. 1968 amendments continued the earlier discretionary language, required the beneficiary to report to the New Jersey Rehabilitation Commission and, if necessary, follow a rehabilitation program, and further provided for no loss of benefits. In 1971, the Legislature eliminated the Rehabilitation Commission provision, added a five-year limitation on requiring beneficiaries to submit to medical examinations, and deleted the discretionary language that had been in the statute since 1955. That is the version of the statute that is in effect today. The Court is no more enlightened regarding the intent of the Legislature by the language changes in the statute over time than by the words of the statute itself. In short, discerning the meaning of the statute requires further inquiry into other extrinsic evidence. (Pp. 13-16)
3. The Court must then consider administrative agency interpretations of N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a), which must be given substantial weight in an interpretative calculus. In that analysis, the Court also considers administrative agency and judicial interpretations of identical and similarly worded legislation. The Commissioner of Education has, on several occasions, expressed an official position on the interpretation of N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) and whether that statute creates a right to reinstatement. The Commissioner's latest holding is found in Bublin v. Board of Education of Point Pleasant, which today remains the Department of Education's official interpretation. In Bublin, the Commissioner determined that the employee was legally entitled to reinstatement, but that the school district was not required to create a new position or "bump" an incumbent; the employee was entitled to the next opening. Further, under the statute, the Commissioner held that the employee had no right to a different position; when considering a disabled employee for a job other than the job the employee held at the time of retirement, school districts have discretion to rehire that employee. (Pp. 17-19)
4. Unlike the Commissioner of Education, TPAF has not developed a consistent administrative position on the subject. The Court notes, however, that the boards of other pension systems within the Division of Pensions and Benefits of the Department of Treasury have interpreted statutes identical, or very similar, to N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) in accord with the Department of Education's long-standing interpretation. The Court takes its lead from those long-standing administrative and judicial interpretations of the reexamination and reemployment provision of those pension statutes. Those interpretations are important not only because of the deference we accord to the administrative agencies called to enforce a statutory scheme, but also because the Court attempts to construe statutes on the same subject as part of a harmonious whole. N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a), like its counterparts, is part and parcel of a humane and sensible scheme that allows a worker who has recovered from a disability to be assured gainful employment, assuming he remains qualified therefore. Once Klumb was declared by TPAF to have recovered sufficiently to return to teaching, the District was not required to bump another employee or create a new position for her, but to reinstate her to the next opening in the position from which she was retired, so long as her credentials for that position remained in effect. Failing that, the District was required to make her whole for the losses she sustained when it refused to do its duty. (Pp. 19-27)
5. The Court agrees with the District that the Commissioner's order of back pay requires further refining, i.e., repayment to TPAF and set-off based on wages earned by Klumb during that period. In addition, although Klumb was denied an open teaching position in March 1999, as far as the record reveals she did not appeal or otherwise confront the District for over three years, finally filing a complaint in April 2002. It seems to the Court that, unless Klumb explains that three-year delay, the District should not be responsible for back pay during that period. The Court therefore remands the case to the Commissioner for an analysis of those issues. (Pp. 27-28)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED with the modifications the Court has imposed. The case is REMANDED to the Commissioner of Education for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long
More than twenty years ago, plaintiff, a public school teacher, retired from her position on a disability pension. On several occasions she requested that the Teacher's Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) reconsider its finding that she was disabled. Eventually, TPAF found her sufficiently recovered to return to teaching and ordered her employer to rehire her.
The employer refused and TPAF ultimately withdrew its order of reinstatement. On a challenge by the teacher, the Commissioner of Education later declared her to be legally entitled to reinstatement pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a). That ruling was upheld by the State Board of Education and the Appellate Division.
On this appeal we are asked to interpret N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a) and to determine whether it mandates school districts to rehire a formerly disabled employee and, if so, whether there are any limits on that imperative. We hold that under N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40(a), a school district must return a formerly disabled teacher to the next available opening in the position that he or she held at the time of the disability retirement, so long as the teacher meets the standards set by the State Board of Education for that position, i.e., a valid teaching certificate and endorsements.
In 1968, Charlotte Klumb was hired as an elementary school teacher in the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District ("District"). Starting in October 1985, Klumb requested, and was granted, several leaves of absence in order to obtain treatment for alcoholism and mental health issues. Although Klumb returned to teaching after each leave, she continued to struggle with her recovery.
The District filed tenure charges against Klumb and placed her on "voluntary sick leave disability" without pay but with benefits and agreed not to proceed with the tenure charges pending the outcome of Klumb's disability application. Klumb submitted a disability application to TPAF on April 11, 1988. The application was subsequently approved.
In early 1994, Klumb believed that she had been rehabilitated and requested that TPAF reconsider its finding that she was disabled from teaching. When TPAF denied that application she appealed. For reasons that need not be recounted here, a long delay occurred. During that period, Klumb amassed an array of medical reports demonstrating that she no longer suffered from a disability and that she was able to perform her duties as a teacher.
Based on that evidence, she renewed her request in 1998. On October 2, 1998, TPAF found that Klumb's "disability has disappeared or substantially diminished to the point that she may resume her former duties of teacher without restriction."*fn1
On that same day, TPAF also notified the District of its determination and ordered it to "reinstate Ms. Klumb to her former duty or any other comparable duty which may be assigned to her." The District sought a hearing. TPAF again wrote to the District on December 16, 1998, and stated that the applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:66-40, "does not address reemployment nor does it require an employer to reemploy the member." Relying on that letter, the District refused to rehire Klumb as initially ordered. Despite the District's insistence that it was not required to rehire ...