Barila v. Bd. of Educ. of Cliffside Park

Decision Date20 April 2020
Docket NumberA-39 September Term 2018,081626
Citation241 N.J. 595,230 A.3d 243
Parties Paul BARILA, William J. Ludwig, Candace R. Kantor, and Dennis Enrico, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF CLIFFSIDE PARK, Bergen County, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Stephen R. Fogarty, Fairlawn, argued the cause for appellant (Fogarty & Hara, attorneys; Stephen R. Fogarty, of counsel and on the briefs, and Robert D. Lorfink, on the briefs).

Richard A. Friedman, Newark, argued the cause for respondents (Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum & Friedman, attorneys; Richard A. Friedman, of counsel and on the briefs, and Raymond M. Baldino, Craig A. Long, and Edward M. Suarez, Jr., Newark, on the briefs).

Robert A. Greitz argued the cause for amici curiae New Jersey School Boards Association and New Jersey State League of Municipalities (Cynthia J. Jahn, General Counsel, attorney; Robert A. Greitz, on the brief).

Steven R. Cohen, Mount Laurel, argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Education Association (Selikoff & Cohen, attorneys). Louis P. Bucceri and Albert J. Leonardo, on the brief (Bucceri & Pincus).

JUSTICE PATTERSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal arises from the July 1, 2015 collective negotiations agreement (the 2015 Agreement) between the Board of Education of Cliffside Park (the Board) and the majority representative of the school district's teachers, the Cliffside Park Education Association (the Association). In exchange for the Board's significant concessions on other issues, the Association agreed to a reduction in the cap on the maximum amount of compensation that a teacher would receive for accumulated unused sick leave when he or she retired; instead of the $25,000 cap on that compensation prescribed by previous collective negotiations agreements, the 2015 Agreement provided for a $15,000 cap.

After the Association informed its members of the change, plaintiffs Paul Barila, William J. Ludwig, Candace R. Cantor, and Dennis Enrico, all Cliffside Park teachers who had not yet retired, objected to the new provision. Each plaintiff had accumulated sick leave that would have been worth more than $15,000 under prior collective negotiations agreements in the event that the sick leave remained unused at the time of the teacher's retirement. Notwithstanding plaintiffs' objection, the Association's members ratified the new agreement.

Plaintiffs sued the Board, asserting a claim for "vested and/or contractual rights." They contended that they had a vested right to unused sick leave compensation up to the previous cap of $25,000, and that the Board and the Association lacked authority to negotiate away that right without each plaintiff's consent. The Board moved to dismiss plaintiffs' claim pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), and the trial court denied that motion.

Following discovery, plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on their vested-rights claim. In a cross-motion for summary judgment, the Board challenged the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction, contending that the controversy was a scope-of-negotiations dispute within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC). The Board argued that plaintiffs had no vested right to sick leave compensation up to the $25,000 cap set forth in prior agreements.

The trial court rejected the Board's challenge to subject matter jurisdiction. It concurred with plaintiffs that the 2015 Agreement deprived plaintiffs of rights that had vested during the terms of prior agreements and accordingly denied the Board's motion to dismiss. The trial court granted summary judgment in plaintiffs' favor and denied the Board's cross-motion. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's assertion of subject matter jurisdiction and its judgment on plaintiffs' vested-rights claim, relying on case law rather than the language of the relevant collective negotiations agreements.

We concur with the Appellate Division that the parties' dispute did not raise a scope-of-negotiations question and that the trial court therefore properly asserted subject matter jurisdiction. However, we reverse the Appellate Division's judgment on the vested-rights claim. As the governing contracts made clear, a given teacher's right to sick leave compensation did not vest until that teacher, having served the length of time required by the agreement, retired or otherwise separated from employment with his or her sick leave still unused. When the Board and the Association limited such compensation in their 2015 Agreement for the Association's members, they did not infringe on a vested right. The cases on which the trial court and Appellate Division relied address issues distinct from those involved here and warrant no departure from the unambiguous contractual terms to which the Board and the Association agreed.

Accordingly, we reverse the Appellate Division's judgment, vacate the orders granting summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and denying the Board's motion for summary judgment, and enter summary judgment in favor of the Board.

I.
A.

In N.J.S.A. 18A:30-2, the Legislature entitled several categories of school employees to "sick leave with full pay for a minimum of 10 school days in any school year." It defined "sick leave" to be "the absence from his or her post of duty, of any person because of personal disability due to illness or injury, or because he or she has been excluded from school by the school district's medical authorities on account of a contagious disease or of being quarantined for such a disease in his or her immediate household." N.J.S.A. 18A:30-1.

Another provision permits qualified school employees to accumulate their unused sick leave from year to year: "If any such person requires in any school year less than the specified number of days of sick leave with pay allowed, all days of such minimum sick leave not utilized that year shall be accumulative to be used for additional sick leave as needed in subsequent years." N.J.S.A. 18A:30-3.

However, the Legislature did not enact a statute entitling a school employee to compensation for sick leave that remains unused when his or her employment ends.1 Accordingly, the right of a teacher in the Cliffside Park School District to be compensated for any accumulated sick leave days unused at the time of his or her retirement or other separation from the school district derives entirely from the collective negotiations agreements between the Board and the Association. The sick leave compensation provisions of two collective negotiations agreements between the Board and the Association are thus at the center of this case.

B.
1.

Plaintiffs are members of the Association, which is the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all teaching staff members employed by the Cliffside Park School District.2 As a majority representative, the Association is "entitled to act for and to negotiate agreements covering all employees in the unit." N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.3.

On July 1, 2012, the Board and the Association entered into a collective negotiations agreement "in effect from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2015" (the 2012 Agreement). In accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:30-2, the 2012 Agreement entitled plaintiffs to "ten (10) sick leave days with full pay in each school year." It provided that "[u]nused sick leave days shall, in accordance with the provisions of N.J.S.A. 18A:30-3, be accumulated from year to year with no maximum limit." A teacher who used no sick days or personal days in a given school year was entitled to an annual attendance bonus of $1200, and a teacher who used no sick days and only one personal day was entitled to an annual attendance bonus of $800.

Consistent with the collective negotiations agreements in effect for the previous twenty years, the 2012 Agreement between the Board and the Association provided for compensation for unused accumulated sick leave as follows:

3. Any teacher, who, as of the end of any school year beginning with 09-10, has either served the District at least ten (10) years and has retired under the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund upon such retirement or has served the District at [least] twenty-five (25) years and leaves the employ of the Board for any reason,[3] shall be paid according to the table:
Formula for unused sick leave:
                                First 100 days       ×   $125.00/day
                                Second 100 days      ×   $0.00/day
                                Up to next 72 days   ×   $175.00/day
                                Maximum is $25,000.00
                
Maximum is $25,000.00

The Board and the Association agreed that their 2012 Agreement set forth "the full and complete understanding between the Board and the Association," and that it could not be "amended or modified in any way, in whole or in part, except by written agreement ratified and executed by both parties in the same manner as this Agreement." The 2012 Agreement stated that it would "continue in full force and effect, with all attendant benefits and responsibilities to the Board and the Association, until a successor agreement is ratified by the Board and the Association."

When the Board and the Association negotiated the terms of their successor agreement, they retained the formula for annual attendance bonuses set forth in the 2012 Agreement. The provision for accumulated unused sick leave at retirement or other separation from service, however, was a primary focus of their discussions. According to the deposition testimony of Anita Ferrante, the Association's President and chief negotiator, the Association proposed an increase in the per diem compensation for the first one hundred days of unused sick leave from $125 per day to $150 per day, with a continuation of the 2012 Agreement's $25,000 cap on total compensation for accumulated unused sick leave. The Board rejected that proposal. The Board and the Association eventually agreed to a $15,000 cap on total compensation for unused sick leave. The Board agreed...

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