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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chronic absenteeism policy - multiple penalties challenged

Chronic absenteeism policy - multiple penalties challenged
Seabrook v New York, NYS Sup. Ct., Ia Part 5, Justice Stallman  [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports.]

In an effort to control what it characterized as chronic absenteeism, the New York City Department of Corrections adopted a "Chronic Absence Policy" [Department of Corrections Directive 22583-A].

The policy, which applied to any New York City correction officer who was out sick more than 12 days in a 12-month period (excluding absences for certain specified reasons), provided that an individual determined to have a "chronic absenteeism" problem could lose of one or more of the following discretionary benefits and privileges:

1. Assignment to a steady tour;

2. Assignment to a specified post or duties;

3. Access to voluntary overtime;

4. Promotions;

5. Secondary employment;

6. Assignment to preferential/special units or commands; and

7. Transfers.

Norman Seabrook, as president of the New York City Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, sued the City on behalf of all of the City's correction officers. Seabrook contended that the directive violates Sections 75 and 76 of the Civil Service Law [CSL]. Seabrook's theory: The directive imposes disciplinary sanctions without providing the individual with the notice and hearing required by Section 75 as a condition precedent to initiating a disciplinary action.

The City, on the other hand, contended that its directive did not authorize the imposition of any of the penalties set forth in CSL Section 75(3) and thus does not, on its face, violate CSL Section 75. It also argued that its directive did not violate Section 76, which applies only to persons "aggrieved by a penalty or punishment ... imposed pursuant to [CSL Section 75]."

The court agreed and dismissed Seabrook's petition.

The City conceded that its directive was promulgated unilaterally and does not afford certain of the protections that CSL Sections 75 and 76 provide to employees. However, argued the City, Sections 75 and 76 are inapplicable here because the provisions of the Directive do not include any of the sanctions or penalties set out in CSL Section 75(3) with respect to a correction officer deemed to be a "chronic absentee."

Justice Stallman said that CSL Section 75 specifically limits the imposition of disciplinary penalties to those set out in the section. The employer may not impose penalties exceeding those set by statute. As an example of this principle, Justice Stallman cited Cepeda v Koehler, 159 AD2d 290. In Cepeda the court held that a penalty consisting of forfeiture of 15 vacation days plus the payment of $1,500 fine violated the penalty provisions of Section 75, which only sanctions the imposition of a "single penalty" from among those enumerated.

In another multiple penalty case, Matteson v City of Oswego, 588 NYS2d 472, the Appellate Division overturned the penalties imposed by the appointing authority and remanded the matter for the imposition of a new, appropriate penalty.

Oswego had imposed the following penalties on Matteson: (1) suspension without pay for 30 days; and (2) demotion to a lower grade position; and (3) restitution of $3,699.48.

The Appellate Division held that the penalty given was contrary to law in that "the imposition of multiple penalties was improper" under 75.3 of the Civil Service Law.

As to the issue of the directive providing for restitution of the $3699.48, "restitution" is not one of the authorized penalties set out in 75.3. Thus, it may be necessary for the employer to attempt to recover this amount through a separate proceeding if the employee does not elect to make such restitution.

In contrast, in cases involving the imposition of a penalty by an arbitrator pursuant to a "contract disciplinary procedure" the courts have held that the only limitations on the penalty to be imposed is the sound judgment of the arbitrator.

However, said Justice Stallman, the "[f]acial validity of the Directive does not leave the Union and its members entirely without recourse." The decision notes that the Union had filed an Improper Practice Petition, administratively challenging DOC's unilateral imposition of the Directive with the New York City Office of Labor Relations.

Further, said the court, "implementation of the Directive in a specific individual case may be challenged as arbitrary and capricious."

The decision also points out that "if transfers pursuant to the Directive constitute demotions within the meaning of CSL Section 75, or if actions pursuant to the Directive otherwise constitute substantive penalties enumerated by CSL Section 75, they may be challenged in specific cases where appropriate.

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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