On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-2405-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 26, 2011 - Decided Before Judges Axelrad, Lihotz and J. N. Harris.
On our leave granted, we consider the challenges to the Law Division's exercise of jurisdiction and imposition of injunctive relief, ordering defendant Elizabeth Board of Education (the Board)*fn1 to restore plaintiff Edward Jackus to his position as a supervisor in the Elizabeth school district, following a reduction in force. The Board requests the injunction be vacated and the matter transferred to the Acting Commissioner of Education (Commissioner), arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and plaintiff failed to satisfy the prerequisites for injunctive relief. Plaintiff maintains the dispute involves the enforcement of a litigation settlement agreement over which the Commissioner has no jurisdiction. Plaintiff also maintains injunctive relief was properly granted.
Following our review, we determine that although the Law Division has subject matter jurisdiction over a contractual dispute as well as the tort and discrimination claims alleged, plaintiff's action also challenges the propriety of the reduction in force ordered by defendant, which is a matter within the primary jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Education. Accordingly, issues regarding the reduction in force must first be resolved by the Commissioner, and the Law Division must stay its action pending final administrative review. Additionally, we reverse the imposed injunction, concluding no irreparable harm was presented as the relief sought by plaintiff is monetary damages.
Plaintiff has been employed by the Board since 1979. Initially, he was a tenured physical education, health and driver's education teacher and beginning in 1995, he was promoted to the position of Vice Principal of one of the district's elementary schools. In 2001, the Board filed tenure charges against the elementary school's principal and its two vice principals, including plaintiff. The charges asserted the principal, aided by the vice-principals, failed to hold mandatory fire drills, but certified the elementary school was fully compliant with N.J.S.A. 18A:41-1, which requires the principal of a school to "have at least two fire drills each month within the school hours."
After the State Board of Education dismissed the charges, a decision we affirmed, In re Tenure Hearing of Jackus, No. A-4421-01 (App. Div. May 1, 2003), certif. denied, 177 N.J. 572 (2003), plaintiff filed a federal action, asserting the tenure charges were for the purpose of political intimidation. Plaintiff's complaint alleged, among other things, that the Board impeded his state and federal constitutional rights of due process, free speech and political association.
The background for plaintiff's allegations in the federal litigation is as follows. Plaintiff had served as a Councilman-at-Large for the City of Elizabeth Council since 1993. In the 2000 primary election, he and a slate of candidates he supported for the positions of Mayor and City Council were challenged by Rafael Fajardo, the president of the Board, who himself sought to be the candidate for mayor. Fajardo's running mates included another member of the Board and the spouse of a third Board member. Plaintiff and those he supported defeated Fajardo and his candidates. Plaintiff also maintained he was targeted because of his support for a referendum to allow the mayor to appoint the board members, a position opposed by the elected Board. The referendum was not adopted by the electorate.
After completion of discovery in the federal litigation, the Board filed for summary judgment, which was granted as to three counts of the complaint that alleged defamation and emotional distress, but denied as to the remaining seven counts. Thereafter, on June 27, 2005, plaintiff and the Board negotiated a settlement agreement (the agreement).
Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, plaintiff agreed to release the Board from "any and all" claims in exchange for $75,000 in counsel fees and promotion from his "ten[-]month vice-principal position to the twelve[-]month position of Supervisor of Physical Education, Safety, Health and Athletics[.]" Further, the agreement stated the Board "agree[d] that as long as [p]laintiff is serving in the position of Supervisor of Physical Education, Health, Safety and Athletics, said position shall not be abolished." It was also agreed that plaintiff could "be removed from the position only through the tenure charge process."*fn2
In 2010, the Board, like many other school districts across the state, encountered budgetary difficulties as a result of the reduction in State funding, necessitating a reduction in force for the upcoming 2010-2011 school year. The Board eliminated approximately 500 positions, including all vice principal and many supervisor positions. Consistent with seniority rights, all certificated, tenured staff were transferred to their previously held tenured positions, retaining all seniority and tenure rights.
Plaintiff was notified that his supervisor position was being eliminated and for the 2010-2011 school year he would be transferred to a ten-month teaching position as a physical education and health teacher, with a concomitant salary reduction from $125,758 to $104,798.*fn3
Plaintiff initiated the current action by filing a complaint and an order to show cause seeking to restrain the Board from effectuating the reduction in force as to him. Generally, plaintiff alleged he was demoted in retaliation for his activities as a councilman and in violation of the terms of the 2005 agreement, which prohibited the Board from removing him from his supervisor position. Plaintiff added counts alleging violations of due process, freedom of speech and association because he would not endorse the Board's political agenda or fund raisers, and civil rights, discrimination and infliction of emotional distress.
The Board opposed the application for an injunction and argued the dispute is one involving the non-renewal of an employment contract due to a reduction in force and the implementation of seniority rights, which must be presented to the Commissioner, who has primary jurisdiction pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-9. Thus, it urged plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies required dismissal of his complaint. Further, the Board disputed plaintiff's interpretation of the agreement, arguing lifetime employment was prohibited and its statutory authority to effectuate a reduction in force, N.J.S.A. 18A:28-9, could not be superseded by the agreement.
In a July 21, 2010 oral opinion, the trial judge found the court had jurisdiction as the issue "involve[d] interpretation of a settlement agreement" which is a "legal issue appropriate for the court to decide[.]" In evaluating plaintiff's request for injunctive relief, the court examined the four-pronged test of Crowe v. DeGioia, 90 N.J. 126 (1982), finding the material facts were uncontroverted, because "there is no dispute the parties entered into a settlement agreement and plaintiff dismissed his federal lawsuit in reliance" of that agreement, giving him a "settled legal right" in "the enforcement of the settlement agreement." The judge noted that while the agreement "involved a school defendant, the agreement was not made pursuant to school policy," and therefore, N.J.S.A. 18A:28-9 did not shield defendant. Further, the motion judge found the threatened harm "involved more than just pecuniary damages" because it concerned plaintiff's "ability to speak out as a councilman," as well as his "intangible right to employment and seniority." In "balancing of [the] equities," the court concluded they weigh in favor of injunctive relief, because the harm to plaintiff in "being demoted[,] . . . taking a different title, [and] working a different number of weeks outweigh[ed] any burden on the school board budget[.]" The court also noted the equities weighed in favor of plaintiff because he was "unable to act as councilman without retaliation[.]" Consistent with her bench decision, the motion judge entered an order requiring defendant to restore plaintiff to his position as supervisor and pay him any back pay and benefits that he "was deprived of as a result of his reappointment."
The Board sought, and we granted, leave to review this interlocutory order. The Board argues the Law Division erred in assuming jurisdiction over this educational dispute and in granting plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction.
The applicable standards that guide our review of the trial court's decision are well settled. First, a determination that a trial court has jurisdiction over a dispute is purely a legal issue and "not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty L.P. v. Twp. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); see also Nicastro v. McIntyre Mach. Am., Ltd., 201 N.J. 48, 61 n.7, cert. ...