Appellate Division Upholds Termination of Chemistry Teacher
Jul 12, 2018 | Written by: Share|
A tenured chemistry teacher recently appealed a trial court’s decision in his case against the Hunterdon Central Regional High School District Board (the “Board”). The Board had referred tenure charges against the teacher to the Commission of Education, and the teacher alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and failure to send a Rice notice. On appeal in R.D.A. v. Hunterdon Central Regional High School District Bd. of Education, et al., Docket No. A-5011-16T3 (App. Div. June 28, 2018), the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal holding that the action was time-barred and that OPMA had not been violated.
The teacher’s supervisor notified the teacher by email of a complaint from a student’s parent. In response, the teacher sent his supervisor several expletive-filled emails. The fourth such email from the teacher also included information about three students’ performance in his classes and threatened to lower the grade of one of the students. That email was also sent to the teacher’s wife, two school counselors, and the parent that lodged the original complaint against the teacher.
The teacher was sent a Rice notice advising that his employment would be discussed at a May 16, 2016 Board meeting. The teacher elected to have such discussion in public session; and students, parents, and the teacher spoke at that meeting. On June 6, 2016, the Board held two meetings to discuss the teacher’s employment. One meeting consisted of the Curriculum Committee and the second meeting consisted of the remaining Board members. Neither meeting was attended by a quorum of the Board.
On June 15, 2016, the teacher was served with tenure charges and advised that his employment would be discussed at a closed meeting of the Board. The teacher responded to the charges, and at a June 30, 2016 executive session of the Board, the Board voted to certify the charges to the Commission. The charges were then referred to an arbitrator, who heard thirteen days of testimony.
The teacher filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ on March 30, 2017, after all evidence had been presented to the arbitrator, but before the issuance of a ruling. The Complaint alleged that the Board violated OPMA and failed to send the teacher a Rice notice. It sought to declare the Board’s decision to file tenure charges against the teacher void, and to enjoin the continuation of the tenure arbitration. On June 7, 2017, the arbitrator issued an opinion finding that the Board had just cause to terminate the teacher. Thereafter, the trial court dismissed the teacher’s complaint, holding that OPMA did not apply to the June 6, 2016 meetings and that the Board was not required to send the teacher a Rice notice.
The Appellate Division held that the teacher’s action pursuant to OPMA was improperly filed outside the 45-day time limit set forth in R. 4:69-6 and N.J.S.A. 10:4-15(a) and that no circumstances existed to enlarge such time period. The teacher argued that the Board concealed the existence of the June 6, 2016 meetings; thereby justifying his delay in filing his complaint. However, the Appellate Division noted that the teacher received documents referring to the June 6, 2016 meetings on December 6, 2016, pursuant to an OPRA request, and the teacher’s counsel referred to the meetings during the arbitration proceedings.
Although the Appellate Division held that the teacher’s action was time-barred, the Court also addressed the OPMA and Rice notice allegations. The Court held that the June 6, 2016 meetings did not violate OPMA because there was no quorum. Moreover, since such meetings were not subject to OPMA, the teacher was not entitled to receive a Rice notice. Lastly, official action was only taken at the June 30, 2016 meeting, for which proper public notice was given pursuant to OPMA and a Rice notice was sent to the teacher.
Tara St. Angelo, Esq. concentrates her practice primarily in the areas of municipal and land use law. She was named to the NJ Super Lawyers Rising Stars list for State, Local and Municipal law by Thomson Reuters in 2017 and 2018. Contact Ms. St. Angelo at Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC at 908-735-5161 or via email.
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