The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that an arbitrator did not overstep his authority when he determined that it was inappropriate for a school board to terminate a custodian, even though there was “just cause” to discipline the employee for improper behavior.
The case, Linden Education Association v. Linden Board of Education, centered around a custodian who defied instructions not to enter a girls’ changing room while they were dressing. The custodian proceeded to clean windows in the room while the girls were changing costumes for a dance recital. Following an investigation, the board of education terminated him, noting that he only reluctantly left the room after being told to do so by staff and students, and that he knew that the room would be used as a dressing room.
An arbitrator said termination was too harsh a penalty given his unblemished record, and instead imposed a 10-day suspension without pay. Due to ambiguous language in the arbitrator’s decision and because of the nature of the offense, the board fought for termination.
The Appellate Division of Superior Court found in a 2-1 decision that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority.
The case went before the state Supreme Court in January, where NJSBA argued as amicus curiae (friend of the court) for the school board. NJSBA’s legal staff argued that termination was the appropriate discipline for an issue dealing with the safety and welfare of the student population.
Although the employee had died during the appeals process, the Supreme Court went forward and issued this week’s ruling that the arbitrator’s decision did not exceed his authority. “The contractual language drives our decision,” said the court decision. “The parties did not define ‘just cause’ in the agreement, and the arbitrator needed to fill in the gap and give meaning to the words ‘just cause.’ The arbitrator did so. He concluded that ‘progressive/corrective discipline [was] an integral part of the just cause concept’ and that the employee’s misconduct was not so egregious to support just cause to terminate.”
NJSBA recommends that school boards consult with their attorneys on contract language regarding discipline and arbitration in their labor agreements as it relates to the court’s ruling.