Thursday, March 31, 2016

If the collective bargaining agreement does not set out procedures for conducting GML §207-c hearings, the employer is free to establish such a procedure unilaterally


If the collective bargaining agreement does not set out procedures for conducting GML §207-c hearings, the employer is free to establish such a procedure unilaterally
Nassau County Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Assn., Inc. v Nassau County, 2016 NY Slip Op 02096, Appellate Division, Second Department

The Nassau County Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Assn., Inc. [Association] brought a CPLR Article 78 action seeking a review the hearing officer’s decision  confirming a determination of the Nassau County Sheriff's Department [Department] to discontinue the General Municipal Law §207-c benefits being paid to Correction Officer John Thomas. Supreme Court dismissed the Association’s petition and the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Thomas sustained a back injury in the course of performing his duties as a correction officer. He was absent from work due to his work-related injury and received benefits pursuant to GML §207-c. He subsequently returned to work in a restricted/light-duty capacity, “with no inmate contact and no carrying of a weapon.”*

In June 2009, a doctor appointed by Nassau County [County] determined that, as a result of his back injury, Thomas was no longer fit for any duty, making him again eligible to receive benefits pursuant to GML § 207-c. A subsequent evaluation by a County-appointed doctor in September 2009 reached the same conclusion. In February 2010, Thomas was examined by a County-appointed doctor who determined that he was now fit to return to work in a light/restricted-duty capacity.

The Sheriff's Department informed Thomas of the County’s physician’s determination and of his right to request a hearing to challenge the determination as provided for in the collective bargaining agreement [CBA] between the County and the Association. Thomas elected to submit the matter to a hearing whereby hearing officer would determine whether Thomas was capable of returning to work on restricted/light-duty assignment as of February 2010.** Although Thomas contended that the burden of proof was on the County to show that he was capable of returning to work in a restricted/light-duty capacity, the hearing officer disagreed, ruling that Thomas had the burden of proof to show that he was not fit to return to work in a light/restricted-duty basis.

At the administrative hearing that followed Thomas was represented by an attorney and submitted evidence, including the opinion of his personal physician, to contest the County’s medical examiner's conclusion that Thomas was capable of returning to restricted/light-duty work. The hearing officer weighed the conflicting medical opinions and concluded that Thomas was capable of returning to restricted/light-duty work.

The Association, contending that the hearing officer's determination was "made in violation of lawful procedure, was affected by an error of law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion," filed an Article 78 petition arguing that Thomas was denied due process when the hearing officer placed the burden of proof on him to show that he was not capable of returning to work in a restricted/light-duty capacity.

The Supreme Court agreed with the hearing officer's conclusion that Thomas bore the burden of proof at the hearing, and denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding.

The Appellate Division commenced its review of the Association’s appeal of the lower court’s decision by noting that Thomas’ right to receive payments pursuant to GML §207-c "constitutes a property interest giving rise to procedural due process protection, under the Fourteenth Amendment, before those payments are terminated, 'and a due process hearing is triggered when an officer on §207-c status submits evidence from his treating physician supporting the officer's claim of continued total disability'."

However, said the court, §207-c provides no definitive procedure to be followed, so the hearing procedure to be provided may be the subject of collective bargaining. As the parties in the instant proceeding had not “collectively bargained for a procedure to be followed when an officer contests a light-duty determination,” the Appellate Division ruled that the County was free to fashion a hearing remedy so long as its procedure provided Thomas with administrative due process.

The Appellate Division, citing Kigin v State of NY Workers’ Compensation Board, 24 NY3d 459, said: "Generally, procedural due process principles require an opportunity for a meaningful hearing prior to the deprivation of a significant property interest. The fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner."

Under the circumstances, said the court, Thomas was afforded administrative due process. In the words of the Appellate Division, “[r]equiring him to come forward with some evidence at the hearing to support his claim of ‘continued total disability’ did not deprive him of such right. Indeed, an officer's right to a due process hearing under the Fourteenth Amendment is not triggered until he or she submits such evidence.”

Accordingly, the Appellate Division ruled that Supreme Court had properly denied the Association’s petition and dismissed the Association's appeal.

* In 2003, Thomas was called to active military duty, where he was also given restricted duties because of his back injury. Upon his return from active military duty in 2008, Thomas again returned to his work as a correction officer in a restricted/light-duty capacity.

** Such determinations are made based on the medical condition of the individual at the time the challenged medical examination was administered rather than his or her medical condition at the time of hearing.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2016/2016_02096.htm
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The Disability Benefits E-book: - This e-book focuses on disability benefits available to officers and employees in public service pursuant to Civil Service Law §§71, 72 and 73, General Municipal Law §207-a and §207-c, the Retirement and Social Security Law, the Workers’ Compensation Law, and similar provisions of law. For more information click on: http://booklocker.com/3916.html
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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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