Thursday, September 15, 2011

Finding of guilt based on allegations not included in the disciplinary charges vacated


Finding of guilt based on allegations not included in the disciplinary charges vacated
Eckstrom v City of Ithaca, NYS Supreme Ct., [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports]

In 1997, the City of Binghamton amended the City Code to require “notice and hearing” and proof of incompetence or misconduct before a city official appointed by the Mayor could be removed from his or her office. Prior to the amendment, such officials were “employees-at-will” and not entitled to any form of a pretermination hearing.

In the Eckstrom case, State Supreme Court Judge Walter J. Relihan, Jr. concluded that having enacted such a provision, the City was required to substantially comply with the principles followed in prosecuting disciplinary charges filed pursuant to Section 75 of the Civil Service Law.

Six disciplinary charges were filed against Richard L. Eckstrom, the city's Building Commissioner, by the Mayor. One was withdrawn by the Mayor prior to the hearing and three were dismissed by the hearing officer. Eckstrom, however, was found guilty of the two remaining charges based on building code decisions he had made. Accepting the findings and recommendations of the hearing officer, the Mayor dismissed Eckstrom. Eckstrom appealed.

In reviewing the record, Judge Relihan noted that the hearing officer had concluded that as to the first charge Eckstrom's actions were “arguably correct” and that his conduct with respect to the second charge “was neither incorrect nor unreasonable.”

How then could the hearing officer have found Eckstrom guilty? In both instances, said Judge Relihan, the hearing officer relied on “an uncharged offense in support of a finding of guilt regarding an offense which does appear in the charges.”

In the words of the court:

Obtuse to his own prior findings, the hearing officer concluded that Eckstrom should be fired for incompetence and misconduct ... These jarring inconsistencies and departures from well-settled principles compel the conclusion that the “Final Determination” is arbitrary, capricious, affected by an error of law and constitutes an abuse of discretion.

As the Court of Appeals held in Murray v Murphy, 24 NY2d 150, in order to satisfy due process, a notice of the charges must be given to the employee so that he or she may mount an adequate defense, if one is available.

Further, the disciplinary determination must be based on the charges filed against the employee and “no person may lose substantial rights because of wrongdoing shown by the evidence but not charged.”

Observing that the city “disabled” itself from dismissing its high-ranking officials on policy grounds “unless, in addition, misconduct or incompetence could be proven at a hearing,” Judge Relihan ruled that Eckstrom was to be reinstated to his former position.

Judge Relihan said that this may “complicate the business of the Building Department and cause discomfort elsewhere in City Hall” but “[p]erhaps, with good will, a rational and practical denouement can...be achieved...[which] of course, rests entirely in the hands of the parties.”

Among the lessons of the Eckstrom case: In the event a public employer unilaterally decides to provide a pretermination disciplinary hearing to individuals not otherwise entitled such administrative due process by law or contract, the procedures normally appropriate to conducting such a disciplinary hearing must be followed.

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/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions 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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