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Miller v. State-Operated School District of City of Newark

Supreme Court of New Jersey

November 4, 2019

Brenda Miller, Petitioner-Respondent,
v.
State-Operated School District of the City of Newark, Essex County, Respondent-Appellant.

          Argued September 23, 2019

          On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at __ N.J.Super.__ (App. Div. 2018).

          Ramon E. Rivera argued the cause for appellant (Scarinci & Hollenbeck, attorneys; Ramon E. Rivera, of counsel and on the briefs, and Shana T. Don and A.J. Barbarito, on the briefs).

          Donna Arons, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent New Jersey Commissioner of Education (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Joan M. Scatton, Deputy Attorney General, on the letter brief).

          William P. Hannan argued the cause for respondent Brenda Miller (Oxfeld Cohen, attorneys; William P. Hannan, of counsel and on the brief).

         The Court considers the Appellate Division's determination that Brenda Miller's employment with the State Operated School District of the City of Newark (District) was terminated in violation of her tenure rights under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2.

         Miller was hired by the District in 1998 and held various clerical and secretarial titles until 2012, all of which were classified titles under the Civil Service Act (Act). Effective July 2012, the District reclassified Miller's position to the unclassified title of Confidential Assistant. Almost seventeen months later, the District sent Miller a letter confirming the reassignment and advising her that her new position was not governed by the Act. More than two years later, Miller received a letter terminating her employment.

         Miller appealed her termination to the Commissioner of Education, alleging it was unlawful because she had tenure under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2. The Commissioner determined Miller did not earn tenure under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 while she served in classified positions under the Act because N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2 provides that "[n]o person, who is in the classified service of the civil service of the state pursuant to Title 11, Civil Service . . ., shall be affected by any provisions of this chapter." The Commissioner concluded Miller accrued credit toward tenure only during the period following her 2012 transfer to the unclassified position and that because she had not served in that position for three consecutive years prior to her termination, she did not have tenure rights under the statute. Miller appealed.

         The Appellate Division reversed, disagreeing with the Commissioner's conclusion that Miller's "employment in her Civil Service position could not be considered in determining if she satisfied the time in employment requirements for tenure under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2." __ N.J.Super.__, __ (App. Div. 2018) (slip op. at 12-13, 21).

         The appellate court noted that N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2 "renders Chapter 28's tenure provisions inapplicable to persons holding classified Civil Service positions." Id. at __(slip op. at 13). The court explained, however, that "Chapter 28 pertains exclusively to the tenure rights of teaching staff members in public school districts," and that, although "[t]he plain language of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2 exempts persons employed in classified Civil Service titles from the 'provisions of' Chapter 28, [it] does not exempt employees in classified titles from the tenure provisions in other chapters of Title 18A." Id. at __(slip op. at 14) (emphases added). The court thus concluded that N.J.S.A. 18A:28 "is inapplicable to tenure rights earned under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2," id. at __(slip op. at 15-16), and stressed that "N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 does not exempt secretarial employees in Civil Service positions from its tenure protections," id. at __(slip op. at 16).

         "[A]pply[ing] the plain language of N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 to determine [Miller]'s entitlement to tenure," the court found that Miller "had tenure under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 when she was terminated," id. at __(slip op. at 16-17), and that "the District violated [her] tenure rights under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2" by terminating her appointment, id. at (slip op. at 20). In reaching that conclusion, the court rejected the District's reliance on two earlier decisions. Id. at __(slip op. at 18). The appellate court was "convinced that application of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2 to employees not 'affected by' Chapter 28 is inconsistent with the statute's plain language." Id. at __(slip op. at 19).

         HELD: The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in the majority's opinion.

         AFFIRMED.

          JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, dissenting, explains that the Commissioner's decision in this matter was consistent with the agency's longstanding interpretation of the intersection of tenure rights accruing under Title 18A and the protections afforded to classified workers under civil service law, as well as with numerous decisions over a span of decades that kept separate the rights accruing under each statutory scheme. Noting that the Commissioner's application of the relevant statutes through the years reflects a reading of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2's reference to "chapter" different from that reached by the appellate court here, Justice LaVecchia is of the view that the Court should defer to the Commissioner's interpretation, in accordance with principles of statutory interpretation. Underscoring the practical concerns associated with implementation of the Appellate Division's holding, Justice LaVecchia concludes that the interpretative issue found to exist in this matter should have been left to the Legislature to resolve.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in this opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a ...


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