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June 16, 2010

Tenure by estoppel

Tenure by estoppel
Wamsley v East Ramapo Central School District, 281 A.D.2d 633

If a school board neglects to take timely action to discontinue the services of a probationary teacher or administrator, the individual will attain what is termed "tenure by estoppel." The Court of Appeals addressed the issue of an individual obtaining "tenure by estoppel" in the Sewanhaka case [Gould v Sewanhaka Central High School District, 81 NY2d 446].

However, "tenure by estoppel" is not limited to individuals in the unclassified service such as teachers and school administrators -- employees in the classified service also may attain tenure by estoppel as the Wamsley decision demonstrates.

On October 5, 1998, East Ramapo appointed George Wamsley to the position of school bus driver, a classified service position in the noncompetitive class. Wamsley's appointment was subject to his satisfactorily completing a 26-week probationary period.*

On August 18, 1999 the school district's personnel officer wrote to Wamsley advising him that he was to be dismissed because his service during his probationary period had been deemed unsatisfactory by his supervisors. Wamsley was terminated from his position effective August 25, 1999.

Wamsley sued, contending that his probationary term had expired before he was discharged and thus he held a tenured appointment. He also claimed that he was entitled to a "pretermination hearing" because he was an "exempt volunteer firefighter."

The Appellate Division agreed with Wamsley's argument that he was no longer a probationary employee at the time he was discharged.

In the words of the court, Wamsley's "probationary term began on October 5, 1998, and ended 26 weeks later ... as permissibly extended by his days of absence."**

Accordingly, Wamsley's 26-week period, not having otherwise been extended as permitted by the rules of the Rockland Civil Service Commission, "expired long before his employment was terminated."

However, there were other elements to consider concerning Wamsley's claim of a right to a pretermination hearing.

The due process procedures set out in Section 75 of the Civil Service Law are not available to a noncompetitive class employee who has less than five years of continuous service*** unless the individual is a veteran who served in time of war or is an "exempt volunteer firefighter."

According to the Appellate Division, Wamsley claimed, but never established, that he was entitled to the protections of Section 75**** because he was an exempt volunteer firefighter.

The Appellate Division concluded that although clearly Wamsley was not a probationer at the time of is dismissal, he raised a triable issue of fact with respect to his claim of Section 75 rights based on his status as an exempt volunteer firefighter.

According, a hearing on this aspect of this complaint was required and the matter was returned to State Supreme Court "for resolution of that factual issue."

Two technical elements concerning exempt volunteer firefighter status should be noted:

1. The individual claiming exempt volunteer firefighter status has the burden of demonstrating that he or she enjoys such status [People v Hayes, 135 AD 19]; and

2. Notice of the fact that the individual is an exempt volunteer firefighter must be given to the employer prior to the individual's effective date of termination [Badman v Falk, 4 AD2d 149].

* Although decision states that Wamsley "became permanent" after the expiration of his 26-week probationary term, "probationary employees" in fact hold permanent appointments and may enjoy limited tenure rights. For example, courts have ruled that probationers are entitled to notice and hearing if the appointing authority decides to dismiss the individual during his or her minimum period of probation. In contrast, a probationer may be dismissed without notice and hearing after completing his or her minimum period of probation and prior to the expiration of his or her maximum period of probation.

** The Appellate Division said that as Wamsley "was absent, at most, 5 1/2 days during the 26-week period," his maximum period of probationary had ended expired long before his employment was terminated.

*** Section 75(c), in pertinent part, provides that an employee holding a position in the non-competitive class ... who since his last entry into service has completed at least five years of continuous service in the non-competitive class ....

**** Section 75(b), in pertinent part, extends the Section 75 rights available to tenured employees in the competitive class to a permanent employee in the classified service who is an exempt volunteer firefighter as defined in the general municipal law, except when a person described in this paragraph holds the position of private secretary, cashier or deputy of any official or department.

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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