September 27, 2010

Information contained in personnel record alleged to be defamatory

Information contained in personnel record alleged to be defamatory
Monroe v Schenectady County, 266 AD2d 792

Sometimes an employee will contend that information contained in his or her personnel files is derogatory. May the individual sue the agency if the information is made available to other governmental officials? Part of the Monroe case concerned the dissemination of information contained in a personnel file Monroe alleged was derogatory.

David Monroe, a Schenectady County corrections lieutenant, sued the sheriff and the county following his termination from his position of lieutenant. After a Federal court dismissed his complaint alleging a deprivation of due process under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, Monroe filed a lawsuit in State court.

According to the decision, Monroe was served with a written notice of discipline on July 15, 1994. He was charged with sexually harassing a Schenectady police officer and endangering “the security of the county jail by playing ping-pong and smoking.” The proposed penalty: dismissal.

Monroe, Monroe’s union representatives and department personnel met to discuss settlement of the disciplinary action. The proposed terms of the settlement: Monroe would accept a demotion to correction officer and the department would reinstatement him as a correction officer without retroactive pay or the restoration of any lost benefits. Monroe rejected the offer.

As described by the court, after he rejected the settlement, Monroe was told that if he should press for and win the disciplinary arbitration, charges alleging consorting with a prostitute, having sex with her and his being present when she purchased cocaine would be filed against him and this information would be revealed to the press. At this point Monroe decided to withdraw his disciplinary grievance and accepted the settlement offer, which he signed on January 6, 1995.

One of the issues in this rather complex litigation involved Monroe’s “ninth cause of action” which set out allegations of defamation. Monroe contended that the sheriff had defamed him when he stated that he intended “to pursue further disciplinary action against [Monroe] based on [Monroe’s] alleged connection with a prostitute” if Monroe refused to the settle the then pending disciplinary action.

According to Monroe, “the defamatory words were published by the sheriff to County officials and disseminated throughout the Sheriff’s Department by the placing of a note about the event in [Monroe’s] file.”

The Appellate Division dismissed this branch of Monroe’s action, ruling that “[i]t is obvious that the Sheriff was acting wholly within the scope of his duties (as alleged in [Monroe’s] complaint) in publishing the charges in a disciplinary action and thus was protected by an absolute privilege providing him immunity from a suit for defamation.
The court cited Mahoney v Temporary Commission of Investigation of New York, 165 AD2d 233, in support of its holding.
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