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Monday, December 13, 2010

CSL §75 provides a right to an attorney at a disciplinary hearing but not in course of an investigation before disciplinary charges are served

CSL §75 provides a right to an attorney at a disciplinary hearing but not in course of an investigation before disciplinary charges are served
Matter of Nygard v County of Warren, 2010 NY Slip Op 09060, decided on December 9, 2010, Appellate Division, Third Department

Thomas Nygard, a Warren County deputy sheriff, was served with disciplinary charges alleging seven acts of misconduct pursuant to §75 of the Civil Service Law. Such charges included alleged acts of misconduct that occurred while Nygard was “off-duty.”

Ultimately the §75 Hearing Officer found Nygard guilty of four of the charges. The Hearing Officer, considering the results in another recent disciplinary matter involving Nygard,* recommended termination as the penalty to be imposed by the appointing authority.

Nathan H. York, the Warren County Sheriff, Nathan H. York, found that the record supported sustaining one additional charge, for a total of five, and terminated Nygard from his position.

Nygard appealed, contending that his “statutory rights” had been violated because his request to adjourn an administrative investigation that ultimately lead to disciplinary charges being filed against him until he could have an attorney present was rejected. Accordingly, Nygard argued, “all information gleaned at the inquiry should have been excluded from the subsequent disciplinary proceeding.”

The Appellate Division disagreed, noting that Civil Service Law §75(2) establishes two different requirements for representation depending on the stage of the administrative disciplinary proceeding.

First, said the court, Subdivision 2 provides that during questioning of an employee who "appears to be a potential subject of disciplinary action," the employee has a right to have a union representative present. If the appointing authority fails or refuses to permit the individual to have his or her union representative present, Subdivision 2 states that the failure to afford this right to the employee bars the use of any statements made, or evidence derived, in the course of the initial questioning in the absence of such representation from being used in the disciplinary hearing.

However, noted the Appellate Division, there is a “second stage” in the disciplinary process addressed in §75(2) that expands the employee’s right to representation to include the right to representation by an attorney** once disciplinary charges have been filed against an individual and a scheduled hearing.

The Appellate Division ruled that in Nygard’s case, the administrative inquiry constituted a “stage one questioning” at which he had a union representative present. Accordingly, said the court, the relevant statutory requirement was satisfied and “the record reveals no violation of proper procedures.”

Nygard also contended that his off-duty conduct was improperly considered as a basis for disciplinary action. The court disposed of this argument by pointing out that “An employee may be disciplined for actions occurring while off-duty, citing Villanueva v Simpson, 69 NY2d 1034.

Finding that substantial evidence supported each of the five disciplinary charges sustained by the Sheriff, the Appellate Division rejected Nygard’s claim that dismissal was too harsh a penalty in this instance, finding that termination was not "so disproportionate as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness."***

Here, said the court, the penalty did not rise to that level given the nature of the charges sustained, “particularly when considered together with the fact" that only a few months earlier [Nygard] had been disciplined for a similar off-duty incident.

* In Bigelow v Village of Gouverneur, 63 NY2d 470, the Court of Appeals said that such records could be used to determine the penalty to be imposed if 1. The individual is advised that his or her prior disciplinary record would be considered in setting the penalty to be imposed, and 2. The employee is given an opportunity to submit a written response to any adverse material contained in the record or offer “mitigating circumstances.”

** §75(2) provides that in disciplinary hearing stage of the process, in contrast to investigatory stage of the procedure, the hearing officer shall “upon the request of the person against whom charges are preferred, permit him [or her] to be represented by counsel or by a representative of a recognized or certified employee organization….”

*** The so-called Pell Doctrine, Pell v Board of Education, 34 NY2d 222.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2010/2010_09060.htm
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