New Jersey Supreme Court Recognizes Wide Arbitrator Discretion in Deciding Tenure Charges

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When deciding tenure charges, can an arbitrator impose a penalty other than a reduction in salary or a complete employment termination? That was the issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court in the matter of Amada Sanjuan v. West New York School District. In a decision decided on February 12, 2024, the Court responded with an emphatic YES.

Ms. Sanjuan was a tenured assistant principal who also possessed tenure as a teacher. The facts underlying this case center around her slipping down a set of stairs in the stairwell at her school and injuring herself. But, for unknown reasons, when she reported the incident and filled out her injury report, Sanjuan inaccurately said that she slipped on a piece of paper at the top of the stairwell. However, unbeknownst to her, the school security footage made clear that she simply lost her balance and, significantly, showed that after her fall, she went back up the stairwell and placed a piece of paper at the top of the steps, only to then claim she slipped on that piece of paper. 

Contending that Sanjuan reported the incident in a dishonest manner, the West New York Board of Education brought tenure charges against her and sought her dismissal from employment. 

After the matter proceeded to arbitration, the arbitrator decided that Sanjuan’s conduct justified a penalty, but one short of outright dismissal from employment. Instead, the arbitrator held that Sanjuan should be stripped of her administrative tenure and demoted to her prior tenured role as a teacher. The arbitrator found that the justifiable impact of her actions “did not extend to complete cessation of her employment.” As a result, he reinstated Sanjuan to her former tenured teaching position. 

Sanjuan appealed the arbitrator’s decision claiming that the arbitrator did not have the authority to issue a demotion. Sanjuan claimed that under the existing statutory framework the arbitrator was constrained to only issue either a complete and total dismissal from tenured employment or a reduction in pay. If the arbitrator could not support either of those options, Sanjuan contended that the arbitrator should have dismissed the charges. 

In a precedential decision from August 2022, the Appellate Division unanimously agreed with Sanjuan’s contention. The appellate panel ruled that the statute prevented the arbitrator from issuing a remedy that was not either an outright dismissal or a reduction in pay. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the decision of the arbitrator and reinstated Sanjuan’s status as a tenured assistant principal.

The West New York Board appealed the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court. 

As the Board’s appeal was pending, the NJPSA’s Legal Department recognized that the decision of the Appellate Division represented a substantial departure from how tenure charges had been decided for decades—both before and after the enactment of TEACHNJ in 2012. As background, TEACHNJ changed, among other things, the way tenure charges are litigated. Its most significant change was that it removed the Commissioner’s authority to decide tenure charges—as had been the case since 1967—and gave that power to appointed arbitrators with “final and binding” decision-making authority.

As members of the NJPSA often have tenure in multiple capacities, we believed that maximizing an arbitrator’s flexibility in a tenure charge matter would benefit the membership. As a result, while the appeal to the Supreme Court was pending, the NJPSA filed an application to be amicus curiae in the case—to serve as a “friend of the court” in support of the position that an arbitrator should have wide remedial authority to decide a tenure charge case in a manner appropriate to the particular facts. Such authority, the NJPSA argued, necessarily included the authority to demote a staff member to a previously held tenured position.

An unusual alliance consisting of the NJPSA, the NJEA, and the local West New York Board of Education, all took the position that arbitrators should have broad remedial authority in deciding tenure charges. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed.

In a unanimous decision on February 12, 2024, the Court held that arbitrators deciding tenure charges have wide remedial authority which allows them, under appropriate circumstances, to fashion a remedy that amounts to a demotion to a previously held tenured position. As a result, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division and reinstated the award of the arbitrator to demote Sanjuan from her assistant principal position to her former tenured teaching position.

The decision marks a significant victory for the NJPSA and its first before the New Jersey Supreme Court as a “friend of the court.” It reaffirms that the tenure dismissal process provides arbitrators with broad flexibility to fashion remedies that are appropriate and reasonable based on their findings. Further, by allowing for demotions to prior tenured positions, the Court’s decision benefits the members of NJPSA because it clarifies that arbitrators deciding tenure cases are not constrained to only either dismiss the staff member from all employment or reduce their pay. Now, with this decision, arbitrators are unquestionably empowered, in appropriate circumstances, to remove tenure from one, but not necessarily all, tenured positions. Again, we see this a significant victory for our members who often have tenure in more than one capacity.

As always, please contact our legal department with any legal questions you may have.