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Holmdel Township Board of Education v. Holmdel Township Education Association


June 19, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. C-171-11.

Per curiam.


Argued May 30, 2012

Before Judges Nugent and Carchman.

Defendant Holmdel Township Education Association (HTEA) appeals from an order of the Chancery Division staying an arbitration filed on behalf of its member, William Cullen. HTEA sought to arbitrate Cullen's grievance against plaintiff Holmdel Township Board of Education (the Board), which resulted from the Board's decision not to renew Cullen's contract. The trial judge concluded that the non-renewal of Cullen's contract was not subject to the grievance procedure outlined in the contract between the parties (the HTEA contract) and stayed the arbitration. She also dismissed HTEA's counterclaim seeking arbitration. We affirm.

The facts are not in significant dispute. Cullen was employed by the Board in the area of technology support. He did not have a certified position; he was ineligible for tenure. Cullen and all other technology support personnel were hired annually, and their contracts were subject to annual renewal.

On April 28, 2011, Barbara Duncan, Superintendent of Schools, advised Cullen that his contract would not be renewed for the 2011-2012 school year. His employment was not terminated during either the 2010-2011 school year or the contract year, and he was compensated through June 30, 2011, pursuant to his contract.

HTEA challenged the action of the Superintendent of Schools and filed a grievance, claiming said action was "without just cause."

HTEA was advised on May 5, 2011 that, pursuant to the terms of the HTEA contract, it could not grieve a non-renewal. The Public Employment Relations Commission refused to enjoin arbitration. Subsequently, the Board filed an action in the Superior Court to enjoin arbitration.

Several provisions of the HTEA contract are relevant to the parties' dispute. Article 6, Section K of the contract provides:

K. Employees will be provided the right to grieve under the "just cause" provision for any disciplinary action taken by the District against the employee. This grievance/just cause contractual application shall not apply to any non-renewals for any members.

Article 39 states:

Members assigned to this category shall serve a sixty (60) day probation period which shall be credited upon completion for all benefits and seniority purposes. Any member who serves satisfactorily beyond this probationary period and is terminated shall be subject to the just cause provision contained within this contract pursuant to Article-3 grievance.

In addition, HTEA references Article 42, which provides: "Employees['] seniority/job shall be deemed lost for the following reasons: a. Just cause."

HTEA asserts that pursuant to the contract, the non-renewal of Cullen's employment created an arbitrable issue that was required to be resolved by an arbitrator rather than a court. Specifically, HTEA claims that, when hired, Cullen was subject to a sixty-day probation period, and after he completed that probation, he could not be terminated without a showing of "just cause."

HTEA correctly argues that the role of the court in addressing arbitrability issues is limited. The court shall determine questions of substantive arbitrability. Bd. of Educ. of Alpha v. Alpha Educ. Ass'n, 188 N.J. 595, 603-04 (2006); Standard Motor Freight, Inc. v. Local Union 560, Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 49 N.J. 83, 96 (1967). In performing that function, the court is limited to ascertaining "whether the party seeking arbitration is making a claim which, on its face, is covered by the contract and within the arbitration clause." Bd. of Educ. of Bloomfield v. Bloomfield Educ. Ass'n, 251 N.J. Super. 379, 384 (App. Div. 1990), aff'd o.b., 126 N.J. 300 (1991) (quoting Clifton Bd. of Educ. v. Clifton Teachers Ass'n, 154 N.J. Super. 500, 504 (App. Div. 1977)). Resolution of a question of substantive arbitrability depends on whether the union's arbitration demand "fit[s] within the arbitration clause" of the parties' contract. Newark Teachers Union v. Bd. of Educ. of Newark, 149 N.J. Super. 367, 371 (Ch. Div. 1977). See also Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 880 v. N.J. Transit Bus Operations, Inc., 200 N.J. 105, 115 (2009); Standard Motor Freight, supra, 49 N.J. at 96.

In concluding that Cullen was neither subject to the grievance process nor entitled to arbitration, the judge said:

The [c]court finds that the [c]court is limited to ascertaining [] whether the party seeking arbitration is making a claim which on its face is covered by the contract and within the arbitration clause. That is Clifton Board of Education v. Clifton Teachers Association, 154 [N.J. Super.] 500, 504 (App. Div. 1977). So, the [c]court finds in this case that . . . Cullen does not come within the arbitration clause agreement.

I find that Article 6, Subsection K applies in this case. This is not a termination case[;] this is a non-renewal. And even if it were a termination case, Article 6, Paragraph K would apply. So, the

[c]court will enjoin the arbitration as set forth in the complaint[,] and I will dismiss the counterclaim of the [HTEA].

We agree. The language of the contract is clear and not subject to meaningful debate or dispute. HTEA's reliance on the provision regarding the sixty-day probationary period is misplaced. Completion of that period ensured Cullen that, during the term of his contract, his employment could not be terminated except if there were a showing of just cause; the Board declined to renew his contract but did not terminate his employment during the term of his extant contract. As Judge Cleary noted, no provision granted Cullen tenure.

We affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Cleary's oral opinion of November 17, 2011.



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