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July 11, 2011

Terminated probationer denied a name-clearing hearing

Terminated probationer denied a name-clearing hearing
Matter of Johnston v Kelly, 35 A.D.3d 297, 828 N.Y.S.2d 10

Kevin Johnston, because he served as a probationary police officer, could be terminated from his position without a hearing or a statement of reasons, for any reason or no reason at all, provided the dismissal was not made in bad faith, was not for constitutionally impermissible reasons, or was not in violation of law.

After Johnston was terminated from his position before completing his probationary period, he sued and obtained a court order from Supreme Court directing that he be given a “name-clearing hearing.”

The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court’s granting Johnston’s petition for such a hearing was incorrect. The Appellate Division pointed out that the lower court had improperly granted Johnston’s request for a name-clearing hearing as “the sole purpose of a name-clearing hearing is to afford the employee an opportunity to prove that the stigmatizing material in the personnel file is false."

Here, said the Appellate Division, Johnston has not demonstrated that the materials contained in his personnel file are stigmatizing. More importantly, Johnston had not denied the truth of the central factual assertions in his personnel records that formed the basis for his probationary termination. The decisions notes that Johnston “denied facts that were not stated in the report,” or denied statements in the report that were, at most, “tangential to the central issues.”

In any event, the satisfaction that the individual could expect obtain following the holding of a name clearing hearing is limited. Although it could result in a terminated probationary or provisional employee "clearing" his or her name, clearing his or her name does not automatically result in the individual winning reinstatement to his or her former position.

As the Court of Appeals held in Matter of Stanziale [55 NY2d 735], -- where the basis for dismissal is of a "stigmatizing nature" the individual is entitled to some due process so as to clear his or her name --. However the courts have not yet held that an individual is entitled to more than "some due process" insofar as redress or relief within the context of a name-clearing hearing is concerned.

In contrast to the ruling in Johnston, in Matter of Murphy v City of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, 35 A.D.3d 319, the court ruled that John J. Murphy was entitled to a name clearing hearing following his “coerced retirement” from his position with the New York City Employees’ Retirement System.

Here the Retirement system conceded that the element of dissemination has been satisfied. Murphy had sufficiently alleged that the report prepared by Retirement System personnel contains inaccuracies and that the report's conclusions are stigmatizing, “as they arguably accused Murphy of immorality.” Regardless whether Murphy resigned or was fired, the court said that he has satisfied the requirement of loss of employment that is necessary to demand a name-clearing hearing.

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