Applying the Teacher Tenure Act

Platia v. Hamilton Tp. Bd. of Educ., 434 N.J. Super. 382 (App. Div. 2014).  Plaintiff was employed as a special education teacher for more than three academic years in a four-year period.  In the ordinary case, that would have been enough to qualify her for tenure under the Tenure Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:28-1 to -18.  But in one of those years, plaintiff was a “Long Term Substitute,” under a contract that purported to state that it was “non-tenurial.”  The issue in this opinion by Judge Espinosa was whether these circumstances fell under an exception in the Tenure Act for “temporary” employees, N.J.S.A. 18A:16-1.1.  Plaintiff lost the issue in administrative proceedings.  The Appellate Division, however, reversed and ruled that plaintiff was entitled to tenure.

This was a purely legal issue of statutory interpretation.  As a result, the de novo standard of review applied, rather than the more deferential standard that governs review of agency actions that do not involve legal interpretations.  Judge Espinosa also observed that while compliance with the tenure requirements must be “absolute,” the Tenure Act had a remedial purpose of preventing school boards from “abusing their superior bargaining power over teachers contract negotiations,” and should therefore be “liberally construed to achieve its beneficent ends,” rather than allowing “avoidance of tenure by manipulation of job titles.”

The key language in the “temporary” employee exception of N.J.S.A. 18A:16-1.1 bars tenure to an employee who is designated by a board of education “to act in place of any … employee during the absence, disability or disqualification of any such … employee.”  Plaintiff’s “Long Term Substitute” contract recited that she would be “replacing an employee who is on a leave of absence and who may be returning to his/her position at the expiration of this contract.”  The Board of Education relied on that language to reject tenure.  But Judge Espinosa stated that the right to tenure “never depends on the contractual agreement between the teachers and the board of education,” quoting Spiewak v. Bd. of Educ., 90 N.J. 63, 77 (1982).

Instead, what mattered were the facts of plaintiff’s employment.  Judge Espinosa intensely analyzed the facts, and determined that the record did not support the idea that the teacher for whom plaintiff was a “Long Term Substitute” was in fact “absent” from her employment (there was no argument that the other teacher was disabled or disqualified, the other two bases for the “temporary” employee exemption) or that plaintiff acted “in place” of that teacher.  Instead, that other teacher remained as a full-time employee of the school district during the relevant time, so she was not “absent” from the school district, and plaintiff served at schools that were not the same ones that the other teacher had worked at before plaintiff came on the scene, so that plaintiff did not act “in place” of the other teacher.  As a result, plaintiff had earned tenure.