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Medford Township Board of Education v. Medford Education Association

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


May 18, 2010

MEDFORD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MEDFORD EDUCATION ASSOCIATION AND JAMES BAPTISTE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Burlington County, Docket No. C-54-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 1, 2008

Decided April 21, 2008

Remanded by Supreme Court July 30, 2009

Reargued April 27, 2010

Before Judges Skillman, Gilroy and Simonelli.

This appeal is before us as a result of a July 30, 2009 order of the Supreme Court summarily remanding the case for reconsideration in light of Mount Holly Township Board of Education v. Mount Holly Township Education Association, 199 N.J. 319 (2009).

The case involves the discharge by plaintiff Medford Township Board of Education (Board) of defendant James Baptiste, an untenured custodian.

Baptiste had an individual employment contract covering the period from July 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006, under which the Board could terminate him at any time by giving fourteen days notice. The pertinent part of this employment contract stated:

It is hereby agreed by the parties hereto that this contract may at any time be terminated by either party giving to the other, in writing, fourteen (14) days notice of intent to terminate this contract.

Baptiste's employment relationship with the Board was also governed by a collectively negotiated agreement entered into between his union, defendant Medford Education Association (Association), and the Board. This agreement contained a provision prohibiting the discipline of any employee "without just cause" and subjecting any such employment action to the grievance procedures of the contract. The provision stated in pertinent part:

No employee recognized by this agreement shall be reprimanded, disciplined, reduced in rank or compensation, or deprived of any professional advantage without just cause.

. . . Any such action asserted by the Board, or any agency or representative thereof, shall be subject to the grievance procedure[.]

The grievance procedure article of the agreement stated in pertinent part:

A grievance shall mean a claim by a grievant that a loss or injury has been incurred as a result of the misinterpretation or misapplication of the terms of this Agreement, and shall be subject to binding arbitration.

On February 6, 2006, the Board discharged Baptiste, effective immediately. The letter informing Baptiste of this personnel action enclosed a paycheck for what the Board described as "Two Week Notice -- Severance Pay[.]"

The Association filed a grievance challenging Baptiste's discharge under the just cause provision of the collectively negotiated agreement, which the Board rejected. The Association then filed a request for arbitration with the Public Employment Relations Commission. The Board responded by filing this action in the Chancery Division to restrain the arbitration, claiming that the matter was not arbitrable because Baptiste had been discharged pursuant to the fourteen-day notice provision of his individual employment contract.

The case was brought before the trial court by order to show cause. After briefing and oral argument, the court concluded that Baptiste had been properly discharged in accordance with the fourteen-day notice provision of his individual employment contract and entered an order restraining the arbitration.

On an appeal from this order by the Association and Baptiste, we concluded in an unreported opinion that the Board was entitled to discharge Baptiste on fourteen days notice in accordance with the terms of his individual employment contract without showing just cause or having its discharge decision subject to the grievance procedures of the collective negotiating agreement. Medford Twp. Bd. of Educ. v. Medford Educ. Ass'n, A-5580-05T3 (April 21, 2008). This decision was based primarily on our restrictive reading of the Supreme Court's opinion in Pascack Valley Regional High School Board of Education v. Pascack Valley Regional Support Staff Association, 192 N.J. 489 (2007).

In Mount Holly, the Supreme Court rejected our restrictive reading of Pascack Valley, see 199 N.J. at 331, and broadly held that "[t]o the extent provisions in an individual employment contract conflict or are inconsistent with terms in a collectively negotiated agreement [CNA], and diminish or interfere with rights provided by the CNA, the language in the individual contract must yield to the CNA." Id. at 329. The Court also noted that "[r]equiring arbitration in this case is consistent with the Legislature's amendment to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.3 extending a presumption in favor of arbitration to public employees." Id. at 333.

The Board argues that this case is not controlled by Mount Holly because the just cause arbitration provision involved in that case was broader than the one in the contract between the Board and the Association. The just cause provision involved in Mount Holly stated:

No employee shall be discharged, disciplined, reprimanded, reduced in rank or compensation, or deprived of any professional advantage or given an adverse evaluation of his/her professional services without just cause. Any such action asserted by the Board or any agent or representative thereof, shall be subject to the grievance procedure herein set forth. [199 N.J. at 323 (emphasis added by Court).]

The just cause provision involved in this case states:

No employee recognized by this agreement shall be reprimanded, disciplined, reduced in rank or compensation, or deprived of any professional advantage without just cause. . . . Any such action asserted by the Board or any agency or representative thereof shall be subject to the grievance procedure . . . .

The Board argues that because the list of adverse employment actions subject to the just cause arbitration provision of its contract with the Association does not include "discharge," or any other comparable term, this provision cannot be construed to grant Baptiste a right to arbitrate his discharge. For this reason, the Board contends that "unlike in Mount Holly, there is no 'real conflict' between the just cause provision in the parties' CNA and the terms of the individual employment contract authorizing termination upon fourteen days notice."

We conclude that the parties' dispute concerning the interpretation of the just cause arbitration provision of the collective negotiating agreement between the Board and Association is an issue that the agreement confers authority upon the arbitrator to decide. The grievance provision of the agreement states in pertinent part:

A grievance shall mean a claim by a grievant that a loss or injury has been incurred as a result of the misinterpretation or misapplication of the terms of this Agreement, and shall be subject to binding arbitration.

Baptiste's challenge to his discharge without the Board showing just cause constitutes a "claim" of "loss or injury . . . as a result of the misinterpretation or misapplication of the terms of the Agreement."

In Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 880 v. New Jersey Transit Bus Operations, Inc., 200 N.J. 105, 114-22 (2009), the Court held that such a provision of a collective negotiating agreement should be broadly construed. The Court held that a court should not interpret the disputed substantive provisions of the parties' labor agreement, but only determine whether "the parties have agreed that an arbitrator shall decide which of the competing interpretations is correct." Id. at 119 (quoting Kaleva-Norman-Dickson Sch. Dist. No. 6 v. Kaleva-Norman-Dickson Sch. Teachers' Ass'n, 227 N.W.2d 500, 506 (Mich. 1975)). Under this approach, we conclude that the significance of the omission of "discharge" or other comparable term in the just cause arbitration provision of the parties' agreement presents an issue of contract interpretation that is within the purview of the arbitrator to decide.

Accordingly, the final judgment permanently restraining the arbitration of Baptiste's grievance is reversed.

20100518

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