Firm Partner Richard A. Friedman along with Associate Genevieve M. Murphy-Bradacs recently obtained a judgment on behalf of several teaching staff members in the case of Barila et al . v. Cliffside Bd. Of Educ., BER-C-161-16. Plaintiffs were all teachers and/or former teachers employed by the Defendant, the Board of Education of Cliffside Park. The collective negotiations agreement governing the terms and conditions of plaintiffs’ employment provided that any teacher, who, as of the end of any school year – beginning with the 2009-10 school year – who had either been employed by the Board for at least ten (10) years and retired under the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund, or who had been employed by the Defendant for twenty-five years and left the employ of the Board for any reason, was entitled to compensation (in an amount to be calculated pursuant to a specified formula) for accumulated but unused sick leave, up to a maximum of $25,000. An identical provision appeared in prior collective negotiations agreements for at least the last 20 years.
The successor collective negotiations agreement negotiated by the Association and the Board, which became effective July 1, 2015, modified Article VIII by reducing the maximum amount of compensation that could be paid for accrued, unused sick leave to $15,000. It did so prospectively, and purported to do so retroactively as well. Plaintiffs, all of whom have been employed by the Board for at least ten (10) years, argued that they had acquired vested rights in the value of their unused accumulated sick time pursuant to the 2012-2015 Agreement, and predecessor agreements, as a matter of law.
Plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking, inter alia, an order of the Court finding and declaring that plaintiffs possess a vested contractual right to the maximum amount of compensation specified in the 2012-2015 Agreement for all unused sick leave accumulated prior to July 1, 2015.
In an unpublished decision dated May 16, 2017, Judge Robert P. Contillo, J.S.C. held that
a teacher’s right to accumulated sick leave becomes vested upon fulfilling the service conditions and that these rights survive the expiration of a collective negotiation agreement. Even though the right to deferred compensation is earned pursuant to the terms of a particular agreement, this right becomes vested as a result of the teacher’s service and endures beyond the life of the agreement.
Contrary to Defendants position, Plaintiffs were not required to retire, or otherwise leave the Board’s employ, during the term of the 2012 Agreement or else surrender the deferred compensation that they earned had earned oved the course of several years. Moreover, by virtue of the fact that Plaintiffs had worked to earn each accumulated sick day, Plaintiffs’ vested right survived the expiration of the 2012 Agreement.
In so holding, that Court noted that while “boards of education are at liberty to alter, amend, or even eliminate such provisions and rights from future agreements,” they cannot do so retroactively.
This case is significant in that it holds, as a matter of first impression, that an employee’s right to accumulated sick leave vests upon fulfilling the service conditions, and that this right survives the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement and cannot be bargained away, including by the union.
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