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Education Association of Mt. Olive v. Mt. Olive Board of Education


October 2, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Morris County, Docket No. C-142-11.

Per curiam.


Argued September 11, 2012

Before Judges Yannotti and Hoffman.

Plaintiff Education Association of Mount Olive (Association) appeals from the Law Division order entered on December 5, 2011, denying its motion to vacate an arbitration award in favor of defendant Mount Olive Board of Education (Board). We affirm.

The relevant facts are not in dispute. The Board and the Association are parties to a collective bargaining agreement (Agreement) covering the period July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2011. Pertinent to this case, the Agreement provided that the work year for teachers shall include 1 opening day, 180 student days, and 2 full-length in-service days.

The contract also stated, "[t]he last two scheduled student days of school will be shortened days." This language has been present in the parties' agreements dating back an indeterminate number of years. During this time, teachers consistently worked full days on the last two scheduled student days and never challenged this requirement.

When the Board issued the calendar for the 2010-2011 school year, the Association filed a grievance challenging the calendar because it indicated that the last two student days would be shortened days for students only.

The matter proceeded to arbitration. The arbitrator determined that the relevant section of the Agreement was ambiguous and therefore considered the parties' past practice, which indicated that the last two student days had always been half days for students only. He concluded that there was no indication the parties intended to change this practice when they entered into the Agreement. In light of the subject paragraph's ambiguity, the arbitrator considered the parties' long-standing past practice and found same to be controlling. Accordingly, the arbitrator denied the grievance.

The Association then filed an order to show cause in the Chancery Division, seeking reversal of the arbitrator's award.

R. 4:67-6. The Association argued that the relevant provision of the Agreement was not reasonably debatable, and the arbitrator should not have considered the parties' past practice in determining the meaning of that provision. The Association argued the Agreement requires that teachers have a shortened day on the last two school days. The trial court rejected these arguments.

In Board of Education of Borough of Alpha, Warren County v. Alpha Education Association, 190 N.J. 34, 41-42 (2006), Justice Wallace summarized the general principles that guide our review of arbitration decisions:

Arbitration is a favored means of resolving labor disputes. State v. Int'l Fed'n of Prof'l & Technical Eng'rs, Local 195, 169 N.J. 505, 513 (2001) (citing County Coll. of Morris Staff Ass'n v. County Coll. of Morris, 100 N.J. 383, 390 (1985)); Scotch Plains-Fanwood Bd. of Educ. v. Scotch Plains-Fanwood Educ. Ass'n, 139 N.J. 141, 149 (1995). The aim of arbitration is to provide the final disposition of a dispute in a speedy and inexpensive manner. Barcon Assocs., Inc. v. Tri-County Asphalt Corp., 86 N.J. 179, 187 (1981). Accordingly, judicial review of an arbitrator's decision is very limited, and the arbitrator's decision is not to be cast aside lightly.

Ibid. "In the public sector, the scope of review in matters of interpretation is confined to determining whether the interpretation of the contractual language is reasonably debatable." County Coll. of Morris Staff Ass'n, supra, 100 N.J. at 390-91.

"If contract terms are unspecific or vague, extrinsic evidence may be used to shed light on the mutual understanding of the parties." Hall v. Bd. of Educ., 125 N.J. 299, 305 (1991). "The past practice of the contracting parties is entitled to 'great weight' in determining the meaning of ambiguous or doubtful contractual terms." Id. at 306 (quoting Kennedy v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 16 N.J. 280, 294 (1954)).

A careful review of the record supports the conclusion that the Agreement is ambiguous, as the arbitrator determined. The Agreement mentions shortened days at the end of the school year, but does not indicate that they are shortened days for students only.

Thus, the arbitrator properly considered the parties' past experience, which indicated that teachers had worked full days on the last two days of the school year, even though the students had shortened days. Based on this past practice, the arbitrator reached a reasonably debatable interpretation of the relevant section of the contract. Accordingly, the trial court correctly refused to set aside the award.

Furthermore, the trial court was not required to remand the matter to the Public Employment Relations Commission to determine whether the length of the teacher workday was a mandatory subject of negotiations. The Association never raised this claim in the trial court, thereby implicitly recognizing that the length of the work days at issue was a proper subject of contract negotiations. See Nieder v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973) (issues not raised in the trial court are ordinarily not cognizable on appeal).

In sum, we are satisfied, based upon our review of the record, that the Arbitrator did not "exceed[] or so imperfectly execute[] [his] powers that a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made." N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8(d). His interpretation of the Agreement is reasonably debatable and entitled to our deference. New Jersey Transit Bus Operations, Inc. v. Amalgamated Transit Union, 187 N.J. 546, 554 (2006).



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