Reimbursement of improperly withheld GML §207-c benefits
Baker v Clinton County, 2015 NY Slip Op 08898, Appellate Division, Third Department
Craig Baker, a correction officer with the Clinton County Sheriff's office allegedly injured at work on August 8, 2013, was placed on leave, filed a workers' compensation claim and began receiving benefits pursuant to General Municipal Law §207-c. On November 5, 2013, Baker's doctor cleared him to return to work in a light-duty capacity.
The Sheriff, however, did not allow Baker to return to work and on November 25, 2015 served him with disciplinary charges pursuant to Civil Service Law §75. The charges and specifications included allegations that Baker “had falsely reported his injuries.” Baker was suspended without pay as authorized by CSL §75 and a disciplinary hearing was held in January 2014. Restored to the payroll on January 28, 2014, Baker was subsequently again removed from the payroll on February 12, 2014.
In March 2014, Baker filed a combined proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78 and action for declaratory judgment challenging the Sheriff's determination to terminate his General Municipal Law §207-c benefits during the pendency of the disciplinary hearing.* In its answer Clinton County argued that, among other things, Baker had forfeited his claim to recover §207-c benefits under the doctrine of "unclean hands."
Supreme Court granted Baker’s petition and directed Clinton County to pay Baker the §207-c benefits it had withheld from him. The County appealed.
The Appellate Division said that General Municipal Law §207-c provides that when a correction officer suffers a disabling injury in the line of duty, that officer is entitled to continue to receive his or her full salary during the pendency of the disability. The receipt of such benefits, said the court, "constitutes a property interest giving rise to procedural due process protection, under the Fourteenth Amendment, before those payments are terminated."
The court explained that although a municipality may discipline an officer even if that officer is receiving General Municipal Law §207-c benefits, the statutory benefit may not be withheld without a pretermination evidentiary hearing. Further, where, as is here the case, there was no negotiated §207-c administrative procedure in place, the municipality may, but is not obligated to, use the procedures set forth in Civil Service Law §75 as a means to discontinuing the statutory benefit. Thus, said the Appellate Division, “The pertinent question is whether the officer is afforded the requisite due process.”
There was no dispute that Baker’s §207-c benefits had been suspended prior to the conclusion of the disciplinary hearing. Accordingly the Appellate Division ruled that Supreme Court had properly granted Baker’s petition and directed the Sheriff to restore the unlawfully withheld benefits to Baker.
The Appellate Division disagreed with the Sheriff’s argument that Supreme Court had "misappl[ied]" the unclean hands doctrine and should have dismissed Baker’s petition “based on his misconduct.” Citing National Distillers & Chem. Corp. v Seyopp Corp., 17 NY2d 12, the court explained that the unclean hands doctrine applies where "the [petitioner] is guilty of immoral, unconscionable conduct and even then only when the conduct relied on is directly related to the subject matter in litigation."
In this action, said the court, the subject matter of the proceeding was whether the County provided Baker the process to which he was entitled prior to terminating his statutory benefits, not whether he was entitled to §207-c benefits. It noted that Baker had only contended that he was entitled to §207-c benefits during the pendency of the disciplinary hearing. Where, as here, there is a finding that an individual is terminated for misconduct, there is no legal authority to recoup the payments made to the individual prior to such a finding of misconduct.
The Appellate Division said that it did not believe that Baker was perpetuating any fraud or committing a wrongdoing by asserting his right to notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the termination of his §207-c and that it agreed with Supreme Court that the unclean hands doctrine did not apply in this instance.
Turning to the Sheriff’s removing Baker the payroll when he was served with the §75 notice of disciplinary charges on November 25, 2013, restoring him to the payroll on January 28, 2014, then removed him again on February 12, 2014, the court noted that Baker had asked that the disciplinary hearing, initially scheduled for December 6, 2013 within the notice of disciplinary charges, be adjourn. Baker, in turn, agreed that he would be suspended without pay for up to 30 days as authorized by CSL §75 and further, until the hearing resumed in January 2014.
In response to the Sheriff’s contention that Supreme Court awarded excessive damages the Appellate Division said that “§207-c benefits are not wages”**and Baker did not concede or otherwise relinquish his benefit rights pursuant to §207-c. According, said the court, “we discern no error in Supreme Court's determination that reimbursement of the improperly withheld benefits was just and proper relief.”
* On April 24, 2014, the Hearing Officer issued his determination recommending that Baker be terminated based on his finding that petitioner had engaged in the misconduct as alleged and on May 2, 2014, the appointing authority terminated Baker from his employment as a correction officer.
** §207-c [“Payment of salary, wages, medical and hospital expenses”] provides that any eligible individual injured in the performance of his or her duties or who is taken sick as a result of the performance of his or her duties so as to necessitate medical or other lawful remedial treatment “shall be paid by the municipality by which he [or she] is employed the full amount of his [or her] regular salary or wages until his [or her] disability arising therefrom has ceased, and, in addition such municipality shall be liable for all medical treatment and hospital care necessitated by reason of such injury or illness.”
The decision is posted on the Internet at:
Disability Leave for fire, police and other public sector personnel - a 1098 page e-book focusing on administering General Municipal Law §§207-a/207-c and other laws, rules, regulations and court decisions addressing disability and similar leaves absence. For more information click on http://booklocker.com/3916.html