May 13, 2011

Compelling an employee to answer work-related questions

Compelling an employee to answer work-related questions
Compelling an employee to answer work-related questions has been considered by New York and Federal courts in a number of cases. Below are listed some of the holdings by courts concerning some basic “Fifth Amendment considerations” in the context of administrative disciplinary action:

1. Forcing an employee to answer work-connected questions or be terminated from his or her position generally precludes criminal prosecution based on those answers. Testimony obtained under threat of the loss of public employment provides the employee with limited immunity in criminal prosecutions based on the individual’s responses to such inquiries.* Essentially testimony provided under threat of loss of the individual’s public employment may not be used as a basis for, or in, subsequent criminal prosecution involving that individual. [Lefkowitz v Turley, 414 US 70]. The Court of Appeals addressed this issue in People v Corrigan, 80 NY2d 326. The Court of Appeals said that under both state and federal law any statement made under the threat of dismissal is protected by the privilege against self-incrimination and is “automatically immunized from use in criminal proceedings.” The court said that the immunity that attaches to any statement that a public worker gives under compulsion bars the use of the statement itself, as well as any evidence derived directly or indirectly from it, in any criminal prosecution.

2. The several decisions in Mountain v Schenectady [474 NY2d 612; 453 NY2d 93 and 428 NY2d 772] focus on the impact of an employee’s refusal to waive his or her immunity from prosecution and suffers the loss of his or her public office as a result of such refusal. The Mountain rulings focused on the relationships between a refusal to waive immunity from prosecution and the loss of public office.**

3. Where an employee is entitled to immunity with respect to the employee’s admissions or statements made in the course of a disciplinary investigation because it had been compelled under threat of termination, “that immunity would dissolve in the face of false allegations being filed.” [Seabrook v Johnston, 660 NY2d 311, United States v Apfelbaum, 445 U.S. 115]. In other words, transactional or use immunity does not permit the individual to lie.

4. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a federal government agency could impose a harsher discipline on an employee who lied while being investigated for job-related conduct. Although only federal employees were involved, the ruling may influence cases involving state and local employees. As to a "Fifth Amendment" defense in such cases, in Brogan v United States, 522 US 398, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a former union official who falsely answered a federal investigator's questions. The Court held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination does not bar prosecuting an individual who answers questions falsely in contrast to his or her refusing to answer the same inquiries.

5. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, held that in the event employees remain silent in the course of a disciplinary action, citing the Fifth Amendment or some other reason, the appointing authority is free to consider such silence and draw adverse inferences in making its determination in a disciplinary action.

6. An appointing authority may experience a situation in which an attempt to discipline an employee appears frustrated because the employee claims that he or she has been granted immunity in connection with a criminal proceeding. According to the Appellate Division, administrative disciplinary action may proceed notwithstanding the claimed immunity (Greco v Board of Nursing Home Examiners, 91 AD2d 1108). In Greco, a Special Prosecutor granted Greco “transactional immunity from prosecution” in connection with a criminal matter in exchange for his cooperation. The Nursing Home Examiners subsequently revoked Greco’s nursing home administrator’s license. The Appellate Division, in a split decision, rejected Greco’s argument that his immunity barred revocation of his license. The court ruled, “a prosecutor cannot divest an independent body of its lawful discretion by promising broad immunity.” This is consistent with the view that an administrative disciplinary action based on the same events that may have resulted in a criminal prosecution is not “double jeopardy.” Had the board been a party to the granting of immunity, however, it would have been bound by the agreement.

7. Statements made by an employee to the police during an investigation of criminal charges filed against the employee constitutes “competent evidence” and may be admitted into evidence during the administrative disciplinary hearing (Dacey v County of Dutchess, 121 AD2d 536). In contrast, where the administrative disciplinary action precedes criminal action, in the event the appointing authority threatens to terminate or take other adverse action against an employee if he or she does not answer work-related questions, the employee’s answers to those questions are automatically shielded from use in a subsequent criminal prosecution under the doctrine of “transactional immunity” or “use immunity.”

8. Witnesses who may have participated in wrongdoing are not automatically granted transactional or use immunity by virtue of their testimony in an administrative procedure. Further, an administrative tribunal cannot bind the district attorney by a promise of immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for the individual’s testimony as a witness at an administrative hearing. By the same token, the district attorney cannot bind an administrative tribunal with respect to its exercising its lawful authority. If immunity is a consideration, the witness must be granted such immunity by the appropriate authority in order for it to be effective and binding on that authority.

Responding to the following inquiry:

May a police officer be compelled to answer questions posed by a department's internal affairs division concerning on-duty and off-duty activities that directly involve their abilities to “carry out the public trust?” the Attorney General advised that:

In Matt v LaRocca, 71 NY2d 154, the Court of Appeals said that the State “may compel any person enjoying a public trust to account for his activities and may terminate his services if he refuses to answer relevant questions, or furnishes information indicating that he is no longer entitled to public confidence.”

In addition, the Attorney General noted that the United States Supreme Court in Garner v Broderick, 392 US 273, held that if an public officer or employee refuses to answer questions specifically, directly and narrowly related to the performance of his official duties and is not required to waive immunity with respect to the answers in a criminal prosecution, the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination would not bar termination for such refusal to answer.

On the issue of “off-duty” conduct, however, the Attorney General said that there is no explicit statement in case law to the effect that a public officer or employee may be compelled to answer questions concerning such activities. The opinion then indicated that “presumably some off-duty activities are relevant to an employee's performance of his public trust ... a factual determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis.”

The Attorney General concluded that an “internal affairs division [of a law enforcement agency] may compel officers to answer questions directly relating to their official duties, assuming that no waiver of immunity is required,” suggesting that “it would be wise to coordinate the department's investigation of such persons with the district attorney's office.” [Informal Opinion of the Attorney General 93-12].

* Such limited immunity is usually referred to as “transactional immunity” or as “use immunity.”

** Mountain, a police officer, refused to waive such immunity when called before a Grand Jury. He was dismissed following a Civil Service Section 75 disciplinary hearing for refusing to so waive immunity. The appointing authority relied on Article I Section 6 of the State Constitution which provides that a public officer if called to testify before a Grand Jury concerning the performance of official duties shall be removed from office if he or she refuses to sign a waiver of immunity. The Court concluded that demanding such a waiver violated Mountain's constitutional protection against self-incrimination. While a public officer may be removed for failing to answer questions relevant to the performance of official duties, he or she may not be dismissed for failing to waive immunity. It appears that had Mountain simply been asked relevant questions concerning his performance of his official duties, without any demand for a waiver of immunity, his dismissal for refusing to answer such questions would have been lawful.