Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Using an individual’s employment history in disciplinary action

Using an individual’s employment history in disciplinary action
A NYPPL review

Readers raise interesting questions. For example, a reader recently asked if there were any court decisions concerning the introduction of an employee's employment history into the record during a disciplinary hearing?

According to the reader, the Section 75 hearing officer admitted the accused employee's performance evaluations during the proceeding at the request of the appointing authority, indicating that the evaluations would be considered in determining the penalty the hearing officer would recommend if he found the employee guilty of one or more of the disciplinary charges.

The question raises a number of issues, including the following:

1. May such records be introduced into the record at the disciplinary hearing?

2. If the employee is found guilty of charges unrelated to adverse material in his or her personnel record, may the records be used to determine the penalty to be imposed by the hearing officer? By the appointing authority?

3. If the employee is found guilty of charges related to an adverse comment in his or her personnel records should further consideration be barred on the grounds of “double jeopardy?”

Introducing the personnel record:

In Scott v Wetzler, 195 AD2d 905, the Appellate Division, Third Department rejected Scott's argument that he was denied due process because the Section 75 hearing officer allowed evidence concerning his performance evaluations to be introduced during the disciplinary hearing.

The court said that “such evidence was relevant to the determination of an appropriate penalty,” noting that Scott was allowed an opportunity to rebut these records and to submit favorable material contained in his personnel file.

Considering the personnel record:

Having introduced the employee's personnel records, for what purpose(s) may they be used?

In Bigelow v Village of Gouverneur, 63 NY2d 470, the Court of Appeals said that such records could be used to determine the penalty to be imposed if:

1. The individual is advised that his or her prior disciplinary record would be considered in setting the penalty to be imposed, and

2. The employee is given an opportunity to submit a written response to any adverse material contained in the record or offer “mitigating circumstances.”

Is criticism discipline?

In Holt v Board of Education, 52 NY2d 625, the Court of Appeals ruled 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 appointing authority's 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.

As the Commissioner of Education indicated in Fusco v Jefferson County School District, CEd, decided June 27, 2000, and Irving v Troy City School District, CEd 14,373, decided May 25, 2000:

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? This could be a difficult question to resolve.

As the Court of Appeals indicated in Holt, a “counseling memorandum” that is given to an employee and placed in his or her personnel file constitutes a lawful means of instructing the employee concerning unacceptable performance and the actions that should be taken by the individual to improve his or her work.

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” despite the school board's claim that the memorandum was “intended to encourage positive change” in Fusco's performance.

The Commissioner noted that it “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.

Concerning alleged "double jeopardy"

A “counseling memorandum” is placed in an individual's personnel file and later disciplinary charges involving the same event(s) are served upon the individual. Does including or incorporating the events set out in the counseling memorandum as charges constitute “double jeopardy?”

No, according to the Court of Appeal's ruling in Patterson v Smith, 53 NY2d 98. In Patterson the court 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.

Further, the memorandum may be introduced as evidence in the disciplinary hearing or for the purposes of determining the penalty to be imposed if the individual is found guilty.

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.

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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