Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision in a tenure acquisition matter that seemingly overturned decades of administrative case law and prompted an engaging dissent.

In Miller v. State-Operated School District of the City of Newark, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld an Appellate Division decision that reversed a ruling by the commissioner of education in a tenure case involving a clerk in the Newark school system.

In the case, Brenda Miller was hired as a provisional clerk in 1998 and worked in various clerical and secretarial positions until June 2012. During this period, Miller’s positions were subject to the New Jersey Civil Service Act because Newark, along with nine other New Jersey school districts, long ago elected to be governed by that act, which provides different protections to classified employees than are available under the education laws.

As of July 1, 2012, Miller’s title was reclassified from a title covered by the Civil Service Act to a position that was not subject to the act. Subsequently, the district confirmed the appointment by notifying Miller that her employment record would reflect a voluntary resignation from the classified position to one that was not classified – a confidential assistant, which included secretarial duties.

Although Miller was advised that she could appeal the reassignment to the Civil Service Commission, she declined to exercise that right. Just over two years later, however, the district terminated Miller from that position, leaving her short of the period of service necessary to obtain tenure in the confidential assistant position.

When Miller objected to her termination by filing a petition of appeal before the commissioner, the administrative law judge initially ruled in her favor and ordered her reinstatement. However, the commissioner reversed the initial decision, finding that the time Miller served in her classified clerk position did not tack on to the time served in her prior unclassified position.

Accordingly, since Miller had insufficient service time to accrue tenure in the unclassified confidential assistant position, the commissioner ordered her dismissal.

Upon appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the commissioner and the New Jersey Supreme Court, despite a strong dissent, affirmed the Appellate Division decision. Importantly, the Appellate Division reviewed and applied an educational statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:28-2, to preclude the commissioner from defeating Miller’s claim to tenure by excluding her time in her classified clerk position. The Appellate Division determined that merely because Chapter 28 explicitly declines to extend tenure protection to civil service employees, it does not mean that such protection may not be extended to such employees through other means.

Further, the Appellate Division departed from prior commissioner precedent by noting that any limitations imposed by Chapter 28 pertain only to the tenure rights of teaching staff members as set forth in Chapter 28. The decision specifically noted that the commissioner was in error when he concluded that Miller’s prior service in the classified civil service titles could not be considered when determining her tenure rights following her appointment to the confidential assistant position.

Finally, in a vigorous dissent, one justice disagreed with overruling such long-standing administrative precedent. This justice opined that where the reading of a statute was ambiguous, the courts should defer to the expertise of the administrative agency and further noted that the role of an appellate court was to determine whether the agency’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.

However, because the majority of Supreme Court justices joined the opinion that affirmed the Appellate Division decision, Miller was reinstated per court order. For more information about this case board members are encouraged to consult the board attorney pursuant to district policy or with the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.