Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ambiguous contract and past practice defeat teachers' claim

The N.J. Appellate Division has rejected an attempt by the Education Association of Mt.  Olive to overturn an arbitrator's award. 

The contract between the union and the Board of Education provided that "a work year for teachers shall include 1 opening day, 180 student days, and two full in-service days." The contract also provided that the last two scheduled student days of school would be shortened days. The language of the contract had remained unchanged for an indeterminate number of years, and during that time teachers had consistently worked full days on the last two scheduled student days.

When the Board issued the calendar for the 2010-2011 school year the Association filed a grievance challenging the calendar because it showed the last two scheduled days would be shortened days for students only. 

The grievance was ultimately submitted to arbitration, and the arbitrator deemed the relevant language of the contract ambiguous. Turning  to past practice he found that the last two scheduled days had consistently been shortened for students only and, as a result, denied the grievance. 

The Education Association sought to overturn the award, arguing that the relevant language was not reasonably debatable and the arbitrator should therefore not have considered past practice. The trial court rejected these claims, and the Appellate Division has now affirmed. Education Association of Mt. Olive v. Mt. Olive Board of Education.  The court concluded:

A careful review of the record supports the conclusion that the Agreement is ambiguous, as the arbitrator determined. The Agreement mentions shortened days at the end of the school year, but does not indicate that they are shortened days for students only. Thus, the arbitrator properly considered the parties' past experience, which indicated that teachers had worked full days on the last two days of the school year, even though the students had shortened days. Based on this past practice, the arbitrator reached a reasonably debatable interpretation of the relevant section of the contract. Accordingly, the trial court correctly refused to set aside the award.

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