On June 3, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling that raises serious implications for boards that wish to implement increment withholdings against sub-par employees.

The decision, Trenton Bd. of Educ. v. Trenton Educ. Assn., involves the board’s imposition of an increment withholding against a middle school teacher. In the case, the teacher was cited by the vice principal for behavior that included failing to attend mandatory meetings and file reports on time, and using vulgar language in student progress reports when quoting language used by the student during class.

Based on this and similar conduct, the teacher was reprimanded. Following the reprimand, he did not repeat the offenses. Nevertheless, the administration decided to recommend withholding the teacher’s increment for the 2016-2017 school year. The board adopted such a resolution at the May 31, 2016 meeting, with an effective date of Sept.1, 2016, but omitted a termination date for the withholding.

The teacher filed a grievance opposing the withholding that ultimately found its way before the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). The questions posed to the arbitrator were, “Did the board have just cause to withhold [the teacher’s] salary increment….? If not, what shall be the remedy?”

The arbitrator conducted an evidentiary hearing and found just cause for discipline, but restored the withholding after one year, finding that an indefinite withholding was too harsh—especially in light of the fact that the teacher had fully mitigated his prior conduct and had not had repeat offenses. Therefore, the arbitrator ordered a prospective restoration, restoring the teacher’s September 2017 salary to where it would have been had the increment withholding not been imposed.

On appeal, the trial court reversed, finding that the arbitrator exceeded her authority by modifying the board’s discipline. The trial court appropriately noted that the arbitrator’s authority only extended so far as to answer the question posed, which was whether the board had just cause. The question, according to the trial court, was not whether the board had just cause to withhold permanently; therefore, the trial court reversed the arbitrator’s holding.

The union filed an appeal in the Appellate Division seeking to vacate the trial court’s award and instead reinstate the arbitrator’s original decision. Despite the trials court’s analysis, the Appellate Division reversed that court and instead, affirmed the arbitration decision, explaining the arbitrator here was within her authority to determine whether there was just cause to impose an indefinite salary increment withholding or some other remedy once she determined the teacher’s conduct was “unbecoming.” The fact that the question put to the arbitrator did not contain the word “permanent” did not limit the arbitrator’s authority to modify the discipline imposed once she determined it was not warranted.

For more information on this matter, board members should refer to the board attorney, or may contact NJSBA’s legal department at (609) 278-5254.