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November 4, 2010

Discontinuing or postponing administrative disciplinary action while criminal action involving the same event is pending and related issues

Discontinuing or postponing administrative disciplinary action while criminal action involving the same event is pending and related issues
Levine v New York City Transit Authority, 70 AD2d 900, affirmed 49 NY2d 747

New York courts have considered discontinuing disciplinary action while criminal action is pending, holding that an appointing authority has no obligation to postpone administrative disciplinary action even if the county district attorney requests that the administrative disciplinary action be postponed. This was the point made by the court in Levine v New York City Transit Authority.

It may, however, sometimes be advantageous for the appointing authority to wait until the criminal matter has been adjudicated. New York courts have ruled that a criminal conviction compels an automatic finding of guilt in an administrative disciplinary hearing involving the same offense.

If an employee is found guilty in a court of law of a crime such as stealing, and disciplinary charges are filed related to that same incident of theft, there is no lawful way for a disciplinary hearing officer to find the employee not guilty of stealing. Probably the leading case illustrating this point is Kelly v. Levin, 440 NY2d 424. In Kelly the court ruled that is a reversible error for an administrative disciplinary body to acquit an employee if the individual has been found guilty of a criminal act involving the same allegations.

The reason this is true is that the standard of proof required in a criminal proceeding is greater than that in an administrative disciplinary proceeding. In a criminal case, the standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In contrast, the standard to be met to find an employee guilty of the charges filed against him or her in administrative disciplinary action is “substantial evidence” or, in some situations, “a preponderance of the evidence.”

Is an employee subjected to "double jeopardy" if the employer proceeds with an administrative disciplinary action at the same time as criminal charges are pending or following the criminal action should the employee be acquitted? Courts have ruled this is not double jeopardy.

In Bermudez v NYC Transit Authority, Appellate Division, upholding a lower court's determination, said that as to the "double jeopardy" issue,[1] "the dismissal of the criminal charges brought against [Bermudez], which were predicated upon the same acts which were the subject of the disciplinary proceeding commenced against him, has no bearing upon the determination terminating his employment."

In Matter of the Haverstraw-Stony Point CSD, 24 Ed. Dept. Rep. 466, the Commissioner of Education ruled that a Section 3020-a hearing panel is not required to adjourn an administrative disciplinary hearing when parallel criminal proceedings are underway.

A claim of double jeopardy is, however, more frequently encountered in efforts to suppress a disciplinary action in situations were the charges reflect the same acts or omissions that were the subject of counseling memoranda or performance evaluations. The courts have rejected this theory.

In Patterson v Smith, 53 NY2d 98 the Court of Appeals said that including charges concerning performance that were addressed in a counseling memorandum was not “double jeopardy.”

The court explained that a “proper counseling memoranda” contains a warning and an admonition to comply with the expectations of the employer. It is not a form of punishment in and of itself. Accordingly, case law indicates that giving the employee a counseling memorandum does not bar the employer from later filing disciplinary charges based on the same event or events.

The employer, however, may not use the counseling memorandum or a performance evaluation to avoid initiating formal disciplinary action against an individual as the Fusco and Irving decisions by the Commissioner of Education demonstrate [Fusco v Jefferson County School District, CEd, 14,396 and Irving v Troy City School District, CEd 14,373].

The point made in Fusco and Irving is that comments critical of employee performance do not, without more, constitute disciplinary action. On the other hand, counseling letters may not be used as a subterfuge for avoiding initiating formal disciplinary action against a tenured individual.

What distinguishes lawful “constructive criticism” of an individual’s performance by a supervisor and supervisory actions addressing an individual’s performance that are disciplinary in nature?

In Holt v Board of Education, 52 NY2d 625, the Court of Appeals decided that performance evaluations and letters of criticism placed in the employee’s personnel file were not “disciplinary penalties” and thus could be placed there without having to first hold a disciplinary proceeding. In other words, the act of placing correspondence critical of the employee’s conduct or performance in his or her personnel file did not constitute discipline.

The basic rule set out in Holt is that a statutory disciplinary provision such as Section 75 of the Civil Service Law does not require that an employee be given a hearing or permitted to grieve every comment or statement by his or her employer that he or she may consider a criticism. In contrast, alleged “constructive criticism” may not be used to frustrate an employee’s right to due process as set out in Section 75 of the Civil Service Law, Section 3020-a of the Education Law or a contract disciplinary procedure. In other words, an appointing authority may not frustrate an employee’s right to due process as set out in Section 75 of the Civil Service Law, Section 3020-a of the Education Law or a contract disciplinary procedure by claiming its action was merely “constructive criticism.”

In the Fusco and Irving cases, the Commissioner of Education found that “critical comment” exceeded the parameters circumscribing “lawful instruction” concerning unacceptable performance.

In Fusco’s case, the Commissioner said that “contents of the memorandum” did not fall within the parameters of a “permissible evaluation” noting that the memorandum “contains no constructive criticism or a single suggestion for improvement.” Rather, said the Commissioner, the memorandum focused on “castigating [Fusco] for prior alleged misconduct.”

In Irving’s case, a school principal was given a letter critical of her performance and the next day reassigned to another school where she was to serve as an assistant principal. The Commissioner ruled that these two actions, when considered as a single event, constituted disciplinary action within the meaning of Section 3020-a of the Education Law.

* Bermudez attempt to vacate the award contending that he had been acquitted of criminal charges that had led to the administrative disciplinary action.

If you are interested in learning more about disciplinary procedures involving public officers and employees, please click here:

Public Personnel Law E-books

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A Reasonable Disciplinary Penalty Under the Circumstances - A 442-page e-book focusing on determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed on an employee in the public service in instances where the employee has been found guilty of misconduct or incompetence. Now available in two formats - as a large, paperback print edition and as an e-book. For more information click on

The Layoff, Preferred List and Reinstatement Manual - A 645 page e-book reviewing the relevant laws, rules and regulations, and selected court and administrative decisions. For more information click on

General Municipal Law §§207-a and 207-c - Disability Leave for fire, police and other public sector personnel - A 1098 page e-book focusing on administering General Municipal Law Sections 207-a/207-c and providing benefits thereunder. For more information click on

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