Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Drafting disciplinary charges


Drafting disciplinary charges
Fella v County of Rockland, 297 AD2d 813

How important is it to draft disciplinary charges properly? According to the Appellate Division, even in situations where discipline may be warranted, the failure to word the charges and specifications properly may be fatal to the employer's attempt to discipline an employee.

Peter Fella, Rockland County's Commissioner of Hospitals, was suspended for 30 days without pay for allegedly violating the County's Equal Employment Opportunity Policy [EEOP].

According to the court's decision, following an investigation, the Rockland County Director of Employee Rights and Equity Compliance [Director] concluded that Fella had created a hostile work environment by promoting a person with whom he was then having a romantic relationship to a vacant assistant director of nursing position.

The Director held that the Commissioner's action violated the County's EEOP based on a finding that some employees said that they felt uncomfortable at work because Fella had this "romantic relationship" with a co-employee. This, according to the Director, created a hostile work environment and, as such, violated the EEOP. The County Executive adopted the Director's findings and suspended Fella for having created a hostile work environment in violation of the EEOP.

In its decision, the Appellate Division noted that the County's EEOP defined sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexual demands or conduct of a sexual nature which `had the purpose or affect [sic] of unreasonably interfering with an [affected] person's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.'" Citing DeCinto v Westchester County Medical Center, 807 F2d 304, the court explained that there is no sexual discrimination or harassment involved "where the conduct complained of by the employee involves an isolated act of preferential treatment of another employee due to a romantic, consensual relationship."

The Supreme Court judge commented that while Fella's decision to promote an individual with whom he was having a romantic relationship may constitute poor judgment, it did not constitute a violation of the County's EEOP - the alleged basis for bring the disciplinary action. As the County failed to establish any violation of its EEOP, the Supreme Court annulled the determination of the Rockland County Executive. The Appellate Division affirmed the ruling.

Of particular interest is the Supreme Court's noting that Fella's actions may have served as a basis for discipline, albeit based on other theories of alleged misconduct. While the Court concluded there was no violation of the EEOP and thus the County could not sustain the charges it filed against Fella, the decision suggests that Fella's behavior might constitute a legitimate basis for subjecting him to disciplinary action based on other specifications.

In other words, it is possible that had the County charged Fella with misconduct based on specifications other than violating the EEOP, the court might have allowed its disciplinary action against Fella to survive.

What might constitute such a charge and specification? Perhaps charging Fella with misconduct based on his alleged selection of a person for appointment to a position in the public service solely because of a personal relationship rather than making the selection on the basis of the Constitution's mandate that selection for appointment to the public service be based on "merit and fitness."

What lesson can be learned from Fella? While the charges and specifications filed against an employee should clearly apprise the individual the alleged "misconduct or incompetence" giving rise to the charge, the specifications should constitute acts or omissions that, if proven to have occurred, would support a finding that the employee was guilty of misconduct or incompetence. In any event, the employer should be certain that it is able to prove the allegations, whatever they may be, before initiating disciplinary action.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, where a disciplinary action has been "settled" and the penalty imposed includes placing the individual in "disciplinary probation status," the employer must make certain that in the event the employee is dismissed during this disciplinary probation period, the dismissal is based on the individual's failure to meet the specific requirements set out in the settlement agreement.

Perhaps the leading case illustrating this principle is Taylor v Cass, 505 NYS2d 929. Taylor, a Suffolk County employee won reinstatement with full back salary and benefits as a result of a court finding that he was improperly dismissed while serving his disciplinary probation.

It seems that under the terms and conditions of the six-month disciplinary probation period to which the parties had agreed, the County could terminate Taylor without any hearing if, in the opinion of his superior, Taylor's job performance was adversely affected by his being intoxicated while at work during his disciplinary probation period.

Taylor, while serving this probationary period, was terminated without a hearing for "failing to give a fair day's work" and "sleeping during scheduled working hours." The Appellate Division decided that Taylor's dismissal was improper because Taylor was not terminated for the sole reason specified in the disciplinary settlement: intoxication on the job.

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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