Paid “Release Time” for Certain Jersey City Teachers to Handle Union Business Such as Resolving Labor Disputes is Allowed by Statute and is Constitutional

Rozenblit v. Lyles, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). This case involved the question of whether a bargained-for “release time” provision in a collective bargaining agreement between the Jersey City School District and the Jersey City Education Association, which allowed two “releasees” (teachers employed by the District) to spend full time on Association business. Plaintiffs asserted that the provision exceeded the Board’s statutory powers and violated the Gift Clause of the New Jersey Constitution, art. VIII, section 3, paras. 2 and 3.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Law Division ruled against plaintiffs. The Appellate Division reversed in an opinion reported at 461 N.J. Super. 20 (App. Div. 2019), and discussed here. The panel ruled that N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, the statutory based asserted by the District, which authorizes school districts to agree to “payments of salary in cases of absence not constituting sick leave,” did not authorize the release time arrangement, since the releasees were in school while doing union business and thus were not “absent.” The Appellate Division did not need to reach the constitutional issues raised.

Today, the Supreme Court reversed in a unanimous opinion by Justice Patterson that applied de novo review to the statutory interpretation issue posed on the cross-motions for summary judgment. Justice Patterson found that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, though not defining “absence,” intended that the District had broad powers that allowed it to enter into an agreement for release time. “It is undisputed that a teacher assigned to release time does not teach students as he or she otherwise would. That teacher, ‘absent’ from his or her ordinarily assigned duties during that period, is paid a salary and afforded benefits by the District. That arrangement constitutes a paid leave of absence for the teacher, and is within the description of ‘absence not constituting sick leave’ under N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7.”

Justice Patterson also offered a lengthy and detailed analysis of how the overall statutory scheme, including but not limited to the Education Code in which N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7 appears, supported that result. Among other things, the Employer-Employee Relations Act, N.J.S.A. 34:13A-2 (“EERA”), declares that “the best interests of the people of the State are served by the prevention or prompt settlement of labor disputes, both in the private and public sectors.” Justice Patterson observed that “[t]he record presented to the trial court indicates that the releasees spend approximately seventy percent of their working hours attempting to resolve grievances and other disputes between teachers and school administration. Based on that record, it appears that release time promotes the EERA’s primary objective: ‘the prevention or prompt settlement of labor disputes ….”

The Court then turned to the constitutional claims, again applying de novo review. Quoting Gourmet Dining, LLC v. Union Tp., 243 N.J. 1 (2020), Justice Patterson stated that “a court addressing a Gift Clause challenge “must first determine whether the provision of land or financial aid is for a public purpose, and second, whether the means to accomplish that public purpose are consonant with it.” Each of those prongs, Justice Patterson elaborated, has sub-components that amplify or embellish them.

For reasons similar to and including the “prompt settlement of labor disputes” discussed above, the release time provision served a public purpose. And the means– a bargained-for contract– were consonant with the public purpose.

Finally, Justice Patterson found that the public purpose was “paramount” even though the “the Association indisputably benefits” from release time and “the releasees clearly perform tasks at the Association’s direction.” The record showed that “the releasees’ primary assignment is to engage with District personnel and Association members in an effort to resolve labor disputes at an early stage, that they are routinely asked by District or school officials to intervene in specific settings, and that they report to the District on the results achieved. We view the public purpose of the release time provision to be the paramount factor in that provision, as it is applied in the day-to-day operations of the District.” Any private benefit to the Association was “merely incidental or subordinate.” Accordingly, there was no violation of the Gift Clause. The Court reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the Law Division’s ruling dismissing the case.