(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 case in which a teacher was accused of engaging in improper sexual contact with a minor student, the Court considers whether the school district's charges seeking to terminate the teacher's employment must be dismissed because the Department of Children and Families (DCF) determined that allegations of child abuse or neglect against the teacher were unfounded.
Gilbert Young, Jr. was a certified and tenured teacher in the School District of the Borough of Roselle, Union County (District). On February 15, 2007, a former student of Young's, C.W., was visiting the high school nurse in her office and told the nurse about an alleged sexual incident with Young. After school officials were contacted, the police were notified and responded to the school. C.W. gave a preliminary statement to the police. C.W. claimed that he and Young engaged in sexual activity on two occasions during the 2004-2005 school year. C.W.'s vice-principal called DCF to inform it about the accusations. DCF began its investigation of the charges. It interviewed, among others, C.W., his mother, and Young. On May 9, 2007, DCF issued a written report finding C.W.'s allegations to be unfounded, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21. The report stated that there was not enough information gathered to corroborate the allegation that C.W. and Young engaged in sexual genital contact. DCF's report also found that Young's actions did not place C.W. at risk of harm and were not to the degree required by law to find sexual abuse. The prosecutor's office declined to prosecute Young because at the time of the incidents Young was not C.W.'s teacher and C.W. was sixteen years old.
On October 11, 2007, the District filed tenure charges against Young with the Department of Education, Bureau of Controversies and Disputes (Department) under the Tenure Employees Hearing Law, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10 to -18.1. The charges sought to remove Young from his employment as a tenured teacher for unbecoming conduct or other just cause. Young filed an answer denying the charges. The matter was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for a hearing as a contested case. Prior to the hearing, Young filed a motion to dismiss the charges pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a, which provides that if a complaint made against a school employee alleging child abuse or neglect is determined by DCF to be "unfounded," the complaint cannot be used against the employee for any purpose relating to employment, including termination. Young claimed that the complaint investigated by DCF, which was determined to be unfounded, precluded the District from bringing tenure charges predicated upon the same allegations. The Administrative Law Judge reserved decision on the motion until the hearing's completion.
At the hearing, testimony was provided by, among others, Young, C.W., and a detective who testified about the investigation by the Roselle Police Department. In addition to other conflicting testimony, the witnesses contradicted each other about the circumstances surrounding Young's two-hour rental of a room in a local motel on January 1, 2005.
Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Young's motion to dismiss the charges after finding that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a did not prohibit the District from bringing tenure charges for unbecoming conduct or other just cause. The ALJ determined that nothing in the statute precluded charges separate and apart from child abuse or neglect from serving as the basis for tenure charges. The ALJ noted also that the District did not rely on the DCF investigation at the hearing and instead produced its own witnesses and documents in support of its charges relating to Young's conduct, which the ALJ found had a tendency to destroy public respect and confidence. The ALJ also made credibility assessments that discredited Young's testimony and found credible the testimonies of C.W. and the investigating detective. Having concluded that the District met its burden on the charges, the ALJ recommended that Young be removed from his teaching position. The Commissioner of Education (Agency) adopted the ALJ's decisions with regard to both the allegations and Young's statutory challenge. The Agency terminated Young's employment.
The Appellate Division affirmed in an unpublished decision. The panel held that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a did not preclude the filing of tenure charges in this matter, there was substantial credible evidence in the record to support the Agency's findings, and there was no improper shifting of the burden of proof or other legal error that would justify disturbing the Agency's determinations.
The Supreme Court granted Young's petition for certification. 201 N.J. 145 (2009).
HELD: The determination by the Division of Children and Families that allegations of child abuse of a minor student by a teacher were unfounded did not preclude the school district from filing disciplinary charges seeking to terminate the teacher's employment.
1. The Court reviews the statutory interpretation principles applicable to an analysis of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a. Because the main objective is to further the Legislature's intent, the plain language of the statute is examined and words are given their ordinary meaning. If the plain meaning does not point to a clear and unambiguous result, extrinsic evidence is considered, including legislative history and statutory context. Interpretations of the statute and enactments by agencies empowered to enforce them are given substantial deference. (Pp. 15-17).
2. The Court reviews the statutes that address DCF investigations of abuse and neglect under Title 9 and tenure charges under Title 18A, and discusses how these statutes relate to each other. The Court notes that Title 9 defines what constitutes an abused or neglected child and mandates the reporting of suspected child abuse to DCF. Taking immediate action to remove the child from harm's way is a particular focus of Title 9, and DCF is charged with initiating an investigation to determine if a formal investigation is necessary. At that initial stage, there are two possible findings: substantiated or unfounded. A formal investigation must be commenced unless the DCF investigator makes a finding of "unfounded" at the conclusion of the initial investigation. "Unfounded" means, in part, that there is not a preponderance of evidence that the alleged child victim was harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm. If a tenured school employee is alleged to have committed abuse or neglect, whether or not in connection with his or her official duties, that conduct may cause a school board to commence disciplinary action under Title 18A. Title 18A's "unbecoming conduct" standard is different from the Title 9 abuse-or-neglect standard. It has been defined as conduct that has a tendency to destroy public respect for government employees and confidence in the operation of public services. Under Title 18A, a school district initiates charges by filing a written statement of evidence under oath. A majority of the board must vote within forty-five days on whether there is probable cause to credit the evidence, and if credited, whether such charge is sufficient to warrant dismissal or salary reduction. An employee has fifteen days to answer the charge. If the Commissioner of Education determines that the charge is sufficient to warrant dismissal, the case is referred to the OAL. Because due process concerns inform tenure proceedings, the urgency that is built into the DCF's investigation is absent. That is because the DCF process is focused on the safety of the child, whereas the tenure action concentrates on the employee's conduct. (Pp. 17-21).
3. N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a states that "[w]hen a complaint made against a school employee alleging child abuse or neglect is investigated by the Department of Children and Families, the department shall notify the school district and the employee of its findings. Upon receipt of a finding by the department that such a complaint is unfounded, the school district shall remove any references to the complaint and investigation by the department from the employee's personnel records. A complaint made against a school employee that has been classified as unfounded by the department shall not be used against the employee for any purpose relating to employment, including . . . termination of employment . . . ." In this case, the parties disagree whether the word "complaint" in the statute refers to the substance of the accusation, which may not be used against the employee in further disciplinary proceedings, or whether it is a reference to the school official's mandatory report to DCF, which is distinct from the police investigation and the separate compilation of evidence in support of tenure charges. The Court finds that these dueling interpretations fairly demonstrate an ambiguity in the plain language of the statute. (Pp. 21-22).
4. The Court finds that the legislative history of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a does not resolve the ambiguities surrounding the use of the term "complaint." The Court turns, therefore, to the principles of statutory interpretation, including the deference accorded to administrative agencies charged with enforcing legislation. Here, the Agency asserts that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a does not bar subsequent tenure charges where DCF has concluded that an abuse complaint is unfounded. The Agency also states that no action was taken against Young as a result of the DCF investigation and no reference to it remains in his file, thereby satisfying N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a. The Court concludes that the Agency's construction of the statute is permissible and it thus concurs with the Appellate Division that the Agency properly determined that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a did not preclude the filing of tenure charges in this matter. (Pp. 22-24).
5. DCF concluded, in part, that because C.W. sustained no injuries and was not placed at risk of harm, Young's behavior did not meet the statutory definition of abuse and neglect. However, that did not bar the District, in cooperation with the police, from conducting an independent investigation that uncovered additional evidence that supported the filing of tenure charges based on conduct unbecoming a teacher. Indeed, it would be anomalous to hamstring the District solely because of a less than complete investigation by DCF or one whose focus was different from the focus in a tenure case. Furthermore, an interpretation of a statute should not lead to an absurd result. Young's interpretation of the statute would effectively prohibit school districts from disciplining a teacher for unbecoming conduct merely because it did not rise to the level of abuse or neglect under Title 9. It is inconceivable that the Legislature intended that a school district with overwhelming evidence of sexual wrongdoing on the part of a teacher, developed after its own investigation, would be powerless to act because DCF found no violation of the abuse and neglect statute. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division's conclusion that the Agency's construction of the statute is a permissible one entitled to deference. (Pp. 24-26).
6. Finally, the Court notes Young's challenge to the agency's credibility assessments and findings, his assertions that the evidence supports his credibility and discredit's C.W.'s, and his claim that the Agency ignored the significance of some facts and gave improper weight to others. The Court finds those arguments unpersuasive and is satisfied that there was substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole to support the Agency's findings. The Court also discerns no improper shifting of the burden of proof or other legal error that would justify disturbing the Agency's decision. (Pp. 26-28).
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO, DISSENTING, agrees that this case presents a horrifying, revolting factual setting, but disagrees with the Court's determination that the statute is ambiguous. He maintains that the Legislature determined, in plain language, that a child abuse or neglect complaint against a school employee that is classified as unfounded cannot be used to discipline a school employee. He asserts that because the statute's language is clear, it is the Court's obligation to enforce it as the Legislature has written it, regardless how unpalatable the result.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion. JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO filed a separate, dissenting opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The School District of the Borough of Roselle removed Gilbert Young, Jr. from his employment as a tenured teacher based on a finding of conduct unbecoming and other just cause predicated on allegations that he engaged in improper sexual contact with a minor student. The tenure charges were filed based on the accusations of C.W., a former student of Young's, who claimed that he and Young engaged in sexual activity on two occasions. Prior to the District having filed the tenure case, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) made an independent determination that the charges were unfounded.
On this appeal we are asked to interpret N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a to determine whether it precludes a school district from taking disciplinary action against a teacher after DCF has found that a complaint of child abuse or neglect against that teacher is unfounded. We hold that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7a does not bar the later institution of disciplinary charges against a teacher where DCF has investigated and declared allegations of child abuse unfounded.
Gilbert Young, Jr. was a certified and tenured teacher in the School District of the Borough of Roselle, Union County (District). On February 15, 2007, a former student of Young's, C.W., was visiting the high school nurse in her office and told the nurse about an alleged sexual incident with Young. After school officials were contacted, the police were notified and responded to the school. C.W. gave a preliminary statement to the police. The accusation related to events occurring during the 2004-2005 school year, although at the time of the investigation, C.W. stated to the police that the timeframe of the alleged abuse was in January or February 2005.*fn1
On February 15, 2007, C.W.'s vice-principal called DCF to inform the agency about C.W.'s accusations against Young. DCF began its investigation of the charges of sexual abuse, interviewing, among other witnesses, C.W., his mother and Young. On May 9, 2007, DCF issued a written report finding C.W.'s allegations to be unfounded, stating:
Sexual Abuse/Sexual Penetration was unfounded regarding the actions of the Teacher Gilbert Young, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21. [C.W.] sustained no injuries as a result of this incident. Although [C.W.] reported that he and Mr. Young engaged in sexual genital contact on one occasion, there was not enough information gathered to corroborate the allegations. The actions of Gilbert Young placed [C.W.] at no risk of harm and were not to the degree required by statu[t]e to find sexual abuse.
On October 11, 2007, the District filed tenure charges against Young with the Department of Education, Bureau of Controversies and Disputes (Department) under the Tenure Employees Hearing Law, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10 to -18.1. The charges sought to remove Young from his employment as a tenured teacher for "unbecoming conduct or other just cause." The two charges were as follows:
In or about December 2004 or January 2005, Young drove C.W. home after school on a couple of occasions. On one such trip, Young drove C.W. to Warinanco Park instead of bringing him home. It was dark at the time. Young turned off the motor and kissed C.W., putting his tongue in his mouth. He also caressed and touched his body, including his genitals, over his clothing. After 15 or 20 minutes, Young drove C.W. to a location near C.W.'s house and dropped him off.
The foregoing conduct by Young constitutes conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member and/or other just cause for dismissal.
In or about January or February 2005, C.W. was staying at his grandmother's home in Irvington, New Jersey for a weekend visit. Young telephoned at approximately 5:30 a.m. and informed C.W. that he would pick him up in front of the house. Shortly thereafter, Young arrived and C.W. left with him in Young's vehicle. After stopping at a CVS store in Roselle to pick up a prescription for Young's daughter, they proceeded to the daughter's house to drop it off, and then to the Linden Motor Inn.
After checking in, Young parked the car and he and C.W. entered a room at the Inn. Shortly thereafter, Young and C.W. disrobed and started kissing. They eventually engaged in oral and anal sex. Later, Young drove C.W. back to his grandmother's house. The foregoing conduct by Young constitutes ...