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Employee’s dismissal overturned after court finds that the penalty of termination was so disproportionate as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness

Employee’s dismissal overturned after court finds that the penalty of termination was so disproportionate as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness
James v Hoosick Falls Cent. School Dist., 2012 NY Slip Op 02374, Appellate Division, Third Department

The Board of Education of the Hoosick Falls Central School District terminated Dennis James’ employment.after he was found guilty of disciplinary charges filed against him pursuant to Civil Service Law §75 flowing from his alleged involvement in an off-duty domestic dispute. The District's Superintendent of Schools, Kenneth A. Facin, became concerned about James’ continued presence at the school after he learned of the alleged incident and initiated the disciplinary action.

The Hearing Officer determined that James and his girlfriend had a physical altercation during which James’ girlfriend was injure and "considering the severity of the resultant injuries, nature of [James’] conduct, and the public backlash,” recommended that James be dismissed from his position. The Board adopted the Hearing Officer's findings and terminated James.

One of the first issues addressed by the Appellate Division was James’ argument that “the Hearing Officer erred in basing his determination upon substantial evidence rather than a preponderance of the evidence.”

The Appellate Division rejected this theory, citing Rosenthal v Hartnett, 36 NY2d 269. The court noted that “Although Civil Service Law §75 does not articulate a specific level of proof for the hearing level (a gap frequently filled by a provision of collective bargaining agreements), the substantial evidence standard that is generally applicable to administrative determinations applies to disciplinary matters involving public employees under the statute.

As to James’ contention that the Hearing Officer admitted into evidence a written statement prepared by an individual who did not appear at the hearing, the court said that §75(2) provides that "[c]ompliance with technical rules of evidence shall not be required" and it is settled that hearsay may be considered at hearings conducted under the statute.”

Finding that substantial evidence supported the Hearing Officer's determination, the Appellate Division said that it would defer to the Hearing Officer's credibility determinations and, “accepting those determinations, the record contains ample evidence of James’ actions to sustain the two charges.”

However, the court found merit in James’ assertion that the penalty was inconsistent with the Pell Doctrine,*arguing that “termination was so disproportionate as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness,” pointing out that James:

[1] had been employed by the District for 20 years without any prior incidents of misconduct;

[2] the misconduct in question occurred off premises; 

[3] the misconduct did not involve anyone associated with the school;

[4] James “did not hold a high profile job at the school;”

[5] the District pursued the disciplinary charges out of concern for the safety of the school, but it was conceded that no member of the school’s staff had indicated a concern about working with James; and

[6] there was no proof introduced indicating that the students at the school were in any danger because of James’ presence.

The Appellate Division said that “under these circumstances, termination is unduly disproportionate” and remitted the matter to the School District “for imposition of a less severe penalty.”

* Pell v Board of Education, 34 NY2d 222.

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