The Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic Vicinage, (DeLuccia, J.S.C.) recently interpreted a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) pertaining to discipline in the case of Whitaker v. Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, 33-3-139. In this case the Plaintiff appealed her right to challenge minor disciplinary charges which were previously dismissed for alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the CBA.
Instead of proceeding with the grievance procedure as outlined under the CBA, Whittaker opted to challenge the minor discipline at a disciplinary hearing. After the disciplinary hearing was decided, Whittaker next attempted to appeal the decision through the grievance procedure as outlined in the CBA. Whittaker was denied the right to grieve the charges by her employer stating that she was precluded from doing so due to the fact that she had chosen to challenge the charges at a hearing and is thus not entitled to pursue the case by way of grievance.
The Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, took the liberty to interpret the CBA and held that a reasonable interpretation of the agreement would permit an employee charged with a minor disciplinary infraction to proceed first to an administrative hearing to challenge the charges and then, if adverse action is taken by the employer, to demand arbitration of the dispute under the CBA.
This is an interesting case in that it appears to give a Public Safety Officer "two bites at the apple" when challenging minor disciplinary charges. Furthermore, we normally do not see Superior Court Judges stepping into disputes between public employers and employees especially when it comes to the interpretation of a CBA. Interpretation of agreements is traditionally left to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) and the Appellate Division. I think what we should take away from this case is that there is always more than one reasonable interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, and Public Safety Officers should not be afraid or hesitate in certain circumstances to challenge their employers in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division.