Bound Brook Bd. of Ed. v. Glenn Ciripompa (Supreme court of New Jersey, 2/21/17)

Defendant Glenn Ciripompa (“Mr. C”), a tenured high school math teacher in the Bound Brook School District (“District”), found himself in front of the District’s Board of Education when allegations surfaced that he had been using his school-issued laptop and iPad to send nude photographs of himself and to engage in inappropriate conversations with others.  Further allegations arose accusing Mr. C of inappropriate behavior towards other colleagues, often in the presence of students. Of issue in this appeal was the arbitrator’s ruling on count II, which stated the allegations underlying Mr. C’s inappropriate behavior (in particular, inappropriate conduct towards students and a history of behaving in an unprofessional manner towards staff members). The school board terminated Mr. C, based upon the evidence of inappropriate behavior. In his decision, the arbitrator construed the allegations to form a claim of sexual harassment and held that Mr. C’s behavior did not rise to the that level. He reinstated Mr. C to teaching, following a 120-day unpaid suspension. Relying on Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587, 610 (1993), the arbitrator found that there must be a showing that a reasonable woman would consider the behaviors of the aggressor to create a hostile work environment in order to successfully bring a claim for sexual harassment. The District appealed the arbitrator’s decision to the Superior Court, Chancery Division, which reversed the arbitrator’s decision. Mr. C appealed to the Appellate Division, which reinstated the arbitrator’s decision to suspend Mr. C. The Board of Education timely appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, stating, inter alia, that the arbitrator improperly relied on Lehmann, imperfectly executed his powers, and exceeded his authority in deciding to suspend Mr. C.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:24-7 through N.J.S.A. 2A:24-10, an arbitrator’s decision shall be final and binding but is subject to judicial review and enforcement.  Further, an arbitrator’s decision must be consistent with the matter submitted, and any ruling to the contrary exceeds the authority vested in him or her.  Applying Kearny PBA Local #21 v. Town of Kearny, 81 N.J. 208, 221 (1979), the New Jersey Supreme Court adhered to the view that “[a]n arbitrator’s award is not to be cast aside lightly.  It is subject to being vacated only when it has been shown that a statutory basis justifies that action.”

The statutory basis in New Jersey for casting aside an arbitrator’s award consists of a four-part test, established by cross-referencing state statutes, whereby satisfying any one provision is sufficient for vacation of the award.  An arbitration award may be set aside where (1) the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means; (2) there was evidence of either arbitrator partiality or corruption; (3) the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause being shown therefor, or in refusing to hear evidence, pertinent and material to the controversy, or of any other misbehaviors prejudicial to the rights of any party; and (4) the arbitrators exceeded or so imperfectly executed their powers that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.  N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the arbitrator in Mr. C’s case was in violation of part (4) in that he exceeded or so imperfectly executed his powers in rendering an award that was inconsistent with the charges brought.

In his decision, the arbitrator acknowledged that a claim of sexual harassment was not specifically stated in the charges. He evidently inferred that the school board wanted to bring a claim of sexual harassment. Based on the foregoing and the fact that Count II of the petition against Mr. C contained nothing more than a single reference to possible sexual harassment, the Supreme Court invalidated the arbitrator’s award and remanded the issue of Mr. C to a new arbitrator. The Court ruled that the arbitrator did not address the legal question that was placed before him and, in essence, adopted a different claim. As a result, he applied an incorrect legal standard and exceeded his authority by failing to decide a charge of unbecoming conduct in support of termination.

In sum, Bound Brook Board of Education v. Glenn Ciripompa upholds the position that an arbitrator’s award will be overturned if the incorrect legal standard is applied. The arbitrator here misconstrued the claim brought against Mr. C, reinterpreted the claim based upon what he thought the school board ought to have alleged, and, in light thereof, applied an incorrect legal standard to arrive at a decision that was inconsistent with the facts of the case. When an arbitrator does not apply the correct law to the facts of the case and fails to decide a question at issue, the decision is likely to be overturned.