NJ teacher who lives in PA: Residency law is ‘unconstitutional’
A longtime Somerset County public school teacher, who moved across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, has scored a courtroom win against the district that sought to fire her based on where she lives.
In a lawsuit, the Somerville Board of Education had said that Rebecca Drake violated the New Jersey First Act by failing to get the needed exemption permit before moving to Pennsylvania in August 2017.
According to Drake’s counter lawsuit, the residency law signed by then Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 is unconstitutional, as public employees who seek a waiver to live out of state must demonstrate “hardship”—a term which the law neither clarifies nor defines.
In February, a Superior Court judge dismissed the Somerville Board of Education’s cross-motion for summary judgment in the case.
Drake remains employed as a tenured teacher at Somerville High School.
The in-state residency for public workers law only applied to new hires or moves, as it also allowed public employees who were not state residents at the time of its endorsement ten years ago to continue in their roles.
In her counter-complaint, Drake said that she was undergoing a divorce and that her home in Sayreville was headed for foreclosure when she and her two young children moved to her fiancé’s home in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
In November 2017, Drake applied for an exemption to the residency requirement, which the Department of Labor and Workforce Development denied a month later.
Around that same time, Drake’s home in Sayreville also became “uninhabitable due to a leaking roof and mold from the main sewer line,” according to her counter complaint.
In January 2018, Drake asked Somerville schools Superintendent Timothy Teehan for a letter on her behalf, in support of a second application for an exemption to the residency requirement.
Instead, a month later, Teehan confirmed that Drake was violating the state residency requirement, as the Somerville Board of Education hired a detective agency, Atlantic Security International Investigations, to do surveillance on Drake at her Pennsylvania address, according to court documents.
Over the course of spring 2018, Drake reapplied for the residency exemption, while also renting a home in Branchburg. She was approved for her permit the second time, within a month, and then moved to a second residence in Newtown, Pennsylvania, over summer 2018, according to the same documents.
“It’s been clear for years that the law forcing employees who work for the State, local governments, and public schools to live in New Jersey was flawed for a number of reasons, including those cited by the judge,” Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) said in a written response to the judge's order.
Kean is a sponsor of a proposed measure, S-261, which would rollback the state residency requirement for most public employees. He first introduced the bill in 2015.
“While the ruling appears to apply just to this one individual, it’s likely to lead to other litigation and be cited in other cases. It makes more sense than ever to repeal the residency requirement completely,” Kean added.