On February 21, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced its decision in Bound Brook Board of Education v. Glenn Ciripompa, Dkt. No. A-57-15. Glenn Ciripompa, a tenured high school math teacher, was brought up on tenure charges that alleged first, that he electronically sent and received inappropriate sexual content using his District-issued laptop and iPad, and second, that he engaged in harassing behavior towards his female co-workers. The charges were heard before an arbitrator, who ultimately determined that the District proved the former but did not meet its burden on the latter, as the teacher’s behavior did not create a hostile work environment as defined by the Court in Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, 132 N.J. 587 (1993). The arbitrator imposed a penalty of a 120-day suspension, in lieu of termination.
After the arbitrator’s award was initially vacated by the trial court, and then reinstated by the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court granted certification on the limited issue of whether the arbitrator’s reliance on Lehmann was appropriate.
Upon certification, the Court vacated the arbitrator’s award and remanded the matter for arbitration before a new arbitrator. In its decision, the Court held that an arbitrator’s determination of a legal question not placed before him or her by the parties is tantamount to the arbitrator imperfectly executing his or her powers, and therefore a ground for vacating the award under N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8(d). Specifically, the Court found that it was error for the arbitrator to utilize the Lehmann standard in the analysis of the charges, when the issue the parties placed before him was whether the tenured employee had committed unbecoming conduct.
In addition to enunciating that an arbitrator exceeds his or her authority by resolving an issue not placed directly before him or her, the Court reaffirmed the pronouncement that judicial review of an arbitration award is limited. However, despite this statement, the Court’s actions show that it, and other courts (by way of example), will not and should not shy away from vacating an arbitrator’s award when the arbitrator applies an incorrect legal standard, or decides an issue not placed before him or her by the parties. Though in this case, the Court’s vacation of the award leaves Mr. Ciripompa vulnerable to a harsher penalty, this case can ultimately be a win for tenured employees who allege that the arbitrator made a legal mistake in issuing his or her award.
Notably, the Court only granted certification on the issue of whether the arbitrator improperly applied the Lehmann standard to the tenure charges, and only discussed vacation of arbitration awards under N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8(d). Therefore, the Court left intact the Appellate Division’s analysis of N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8(a), whereby an arbitrator’s award can be vacated on the grounds of “undue means,” and that court’s definition of undue means as an award unsupported by the substantial credible evidence in the record, or an award that contains an apparent mistake of fact or law.
Overall, although the Court’s decision may be a setback for Mr. Ciripompa, it does not necessarily constitute a negative opinion for all tenured teaching staff members. Rather, the decision provides yet another ground to add to the arsenal for vacating improperly decided arbitration awards.
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