Even in a case involving a school disciplinary matter, a federal court ruled recently that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education’s powers are limited, and that he has no jurisdiction over a student’s claim to be protected by rights guaranteed under the federal constitution.

The plaintiffs, a parent and her student daughter, brought before the commissioner a series of complaints against the East Brunswick Board of Education including: harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB); overly harsh student discipline; failure to preserve evidence; and retaliation.

The case involved a series of confrontations between the plaintiffs and a school security officer; a fight between the student plaintiff and another student resulting in discipline against the student plaintiff, and issues related to preservation of evidence, all stemming from incidents occurring in 2016.

Both the administrative law judge and the commissioner found no basis for the allegations and all charges were dismissed at the administrative level.

The plaintiff next moved to file charges with the Federal District Court on the same set of facts, alleging retaliation against the student for the student’s exercise of her free speech rights, and the district issuing too harsh a penalty for the student plaintiff’s fighting infraction; that the district breached its duty to train, supervise, and discipline employees for wrongdoings; and an additional claim alleging staff altered videotape surveillance of the fighting incident and created false witness statements.

All of the re-filed claims were based on allegations of 42 U.S.C. §1983, the Federal Civil Rights Act.  United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, in Hecht v. East Brunswick Bd. of Educ., D.N.J. (Civ. Action No. 18-cv-06039) (January 23, 2019).

The board filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the charges were barred before the District Court because the administrative law judge and the commissioner already addressed the issues and found no support for the allegations.  Under the legal concept of collateral estoppel, identical legal allegations, previously fully litigated and involving the same party or parties cannot be brought again in a different court.

The District Court held that while the commissioner “enjoys broad authority to hear all controversies and disputes arising under the school laws, where the controversy does not arise under the school laws, it is outside the Commissioner’s jurisdiction even though it may pertain to school personnel.”

Specifically, the District Court held that “administrative agencies do not have the expertise to issue binding pronouncements in the area of federal constitutional law.” As such, the District Court held that it could not be said that the commissioner previously litigated the constitutional issues, accordingly, collateral estoppel could not be applied.  The board’s motion to dismiss was therefore rejected, and the litigation will continue.

Any questions related to this matter and how this finding may relate to your district should be discussed with your board attorney or with NJSBA’s Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254.