On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Bergen County, Docket Nos. C-330-09 and C-155-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued*fn1 November 14, 2011
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Ashrafi.
Plaintiff Fort Lee PBA Local No. 245 appeals from an October 29, 2010 order of the Chancery Division denying its motion for summary enforcement of an arbitration award. We must decide one issue - whether an arbitrator's decision is exempt from State legislation effective May 21, 2010, that requires public employees to contribute at least 1.5% of their base salary for health care benefits. The Chancery Division said no, and we agree. Therefore, we affirm the order dismissing plaintiff's complaint for summary enforcement.
Plaintiff represents police officers employed by defendant Borough of Fort Lee. The last collective negotiations agreement between plaintiff and the borough expired on December 31, 2006. The parties were unable to negotiate a new agreement, and plaintiff filed for compulsory interest arbitration in accordance with N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16. The arbitrator issued a decision on December 17, 2008, which provided for a new four-year agreement to run from January 1, 2007, through December 31, 2010. The arbitrator retained jurisdiction of the dispute "in the event the parties fail to agree on the final language within thirty days of receipt of the award."
The borough appealed the arbitrator's decision to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). After a limited remand from PERC, the arbitrator issued a supplemental decision on July 6, 2009, that confirmed the earlier award. The borough appealed again, and PERC affirmed the supplemental award on September 24, 2009.
In October 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint and an order to show cause in the Chancery Division to enforce the arbitration award. Near the same time, the borough filed an appeal of PERC's decision to this court, but it did not seek a stay of the arbitrator's award.*fn2 The borough also began implementing parts of the arbitration award, specifically the compensation and insurance terms.
On March 22, 2010, while the enforcement action in the Chancery Division and the appeal before this court were pending, Governor Christie signed legislation affecting public employee benefits and pensions. See P.L. 2010, c. 2. A provision of the new legislation requires payroll deductions from all public employees of at least 1.5% of their base salary for health care benefits. The effective date of the legislation was May 21, 2010, or "upon the expiration of any applicable binding collective negotiations agreement in force on that effective date."*fn3
The borough notified its employees that the 1.5% deduction would commence on May 21, 2010. Plaintiff filed a new complaint and order to show cause in the Chancery Division seeking a declaration that the new legislation did not apply to its arbitration award or that the legislation was contrary to the State Constitution. The borough filed opposition, and the State of New Jersey was also permitted to intervene in opposition to plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff subsequently withdrew its constitutional challenge and sought enforcement of the arbitration award only on the ground that it was the equivalent of a collective negotiations agreement exempt from the provisions of the new law. All parties agreed that the dispute should be resolved on cross-motions for summary judgment.
The Chancery Division heard argument and issued a written decision on October 12, 2010. It denied summary judgment to plaintiff, concluding that the arbitration award was not tantamount to a collective negotiations agreement and therefore not exempt from the requirements of the new statute. The court entered an order implementing its decision on October 29, 2010, and plaintiff filed this appeal.
Our standard of review is plenary from the Chancery Division's interpretation of the relevant statutes. In re Liquidation of Integrity Ins. Co., 193 N.J. 86, 94 (2007); Toll Bros., Inc. v. Twp. of W. Windsor, 173 N.J. 502, 549 (2002).
We affirm essentially for the reasons stated in the written opinion of Judge Robert Contillo in the Chancery Division. Briefly stated, the relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 52:14-17.38a, makes no reference to an arbitration award. The effective date of the new legislation is extended only for "any applicable binding collective negotiations agreement in force" on May 21, 2010. In this case, no binding collective negotiations agreement was in force on that date.
Plaintiff argues that an interest arbitration award is the equivalent of a collective negotiations agreement. In support of that argument, plaintiff quotes N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16f(5)(b) and its requirement that an arbitration award be implemented immediately. Arguing legislative intent indicated by that statute, plaintiff refers to the arbitration award as "a ...