Appellate Division Rules Administrative Assistant Entitled to Tenure Hearing

Appellate Division Rules Administrative Assistant Entitled to Tenure Hearing

The Appellate Division recently reversed a decision issued by the Commissioner of Education regarding the termination of an administrative employee of eight years, without a tenure hearing...

The Appellate Division recently reversed a decision issued by the Commissioner of Education regarding the termination of an administrative employee of eight years, without a tenure hearing. In Saylor v. Board of Education of the Town of West New York, the Court held that although the title of the employee’s changed over the years, her responsibilities remained secretarial in nature, and she therefore achieved tenure in the secretarial position she held since the beginning of her employment with the Board.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division found she was entitled to tenure charges at a tenure hearing.

Background

Petitioner Crystal Saylor (“Saylor”) was hired by the respondent Board of Education of the Town of West New York (the “Board”) as the secretary to the Business Department commencing January 16, 2010.  She was reappointed to the same position for the 2010-2011 and 2011- 2012 school years, but in November 2011 became the Administrative Assistant to the Assistant Superintendent of Educational and Personnel Services. She was reappointed to that position for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years with modest raises.

On July 1, 2015, the assistant superintendent whom Saylor had been working with since November 2011 was promoted to superintendent. Two weeks later, the Board approved the new superintendent’s recommendation to appoint Saylor as Secretary to the Superintendent of Schools. Saylor was subsequently terminated in June 2018, without a tenure hearing.

Upon her termination, Saylor filed an appeal to the Commissioner of Education (“Commissioner”) claiming she was a tenured employee under N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2, therefore the Board erred by failing to file tenure charges and affording her a hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an initial decision affirming Saylor’s termination and dismissing her petition. The ALJ reasoned Saylor did not have tenure status because she had insufficient time in the Business Department secretarial position. Further, her “duties [as] Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent [were] significantly different” from her “job description for Secretary to the Business Department [which] was consistent with the common understanding of the duties of a secretary,” and those duties were “not interchangeable.” The ALJ found Saylor was a “confidential” employee who was “without union or statutory rights.” The Commissioner of Education adopted the ALJ’s initial decision as the final decision.

Appellate Division’s Decision

On appeal, the Court reversed the Commissioner’s decision. In support of its decision, the Appellate Division noted that testimony before the ALJ indicated that the duties of Saylor’s position were essentially the same. Additionally, they remained secretarial in nature, with the exception of a few extra duties added to the confidential position. Specifically, the Court held, “we conclude the Commissioner did not properly construe N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 in concluding Saylor did not hold a secretarial position in service to the assistant superintendent and superintendent”.

In further support of their findings, the Appellate Division cited Quinlan v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. of N. Bergen, 73 N.J. Super. 40, 51-52 (1962), which held:

We . . . take the view that where an employee holding a position covered by tenure is promoted to a position which encompasses his former duties and additionally requires the performance of services which are not covered by tenure, and he thereafter continues to render services in both capacities, his right in his tenure position continues until terminated in accordance with the statute.

The Appellate Division determined that the Quinlan holding applied, particularly given the blurred lines between secretary and administrative positions. “If a secretary moves to a position that still requires secretarial duties, but adds additional duties in a position that is not specifically culled from the tenure statute’s ‘secretarial position,’ we see no reason why the employee should not retain tenure-track status,” the court wrote. “Indeed, the statute allows a person holding ‘any secretarial position’ to gain tenure. Saylor moved from one secretarial position to others in which she continued her secretarial role with extra duties required by her superior’s status. The evidence supports that Saylor was still referred to as a secretary, buttressing the conclusion her positions were still secretarial.”

The Appellate Division also rejected the ALJ’s conclusion that that designation as a “confidential employee” excluded Saylor from tenure. “Other than the superintendent’s testimony that Saylor was considered a ‘confidential employee,’ we see no other evidence in the record to support that conclusion. Again, there was no job description or other documentary proof, including the Board resolution appointing Saylor to the position, that established the position was ‘confidential,’” the court wrote. “Furthermore, there is no evidence that Saylor was designated a confidential employee under N.J.S.A. 11A:3-4(h), the statute cited by the ALJ in support of her finding that Saylor was one, or that a corresponding ‘certification and appointment . . . [was] recorded in the minutes of the Civil Service Commission’ as required by that statute.”

The Appellate Division further emphasized that N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2 does not carve out “confidential” secretarial positions from its purview. “Again, the Legislature conferred tenure status on any secretarial position,” the court wrote.” If the Legislature intended to exclude ‘confidential employees’ from N.J.S.A. 18A:17-2, it could have done so directly.”

Because it concluded that Saylor achieved tenure in the secretarial position she held since beginning employment with the Board in 2010 and continuing until her termination in 2018, the Appellate Division found she was entitled to face tenure charges at a tenure hearing. It thus remanded for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

For more information about the Appellate Division’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group

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