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June 29, 2016

A probationary employee may not be dismissed from his or her position in bad faith or for an improper or unlawful reason

A probationary employee may not be dismissed from his or her position in bad faith or for an improper or unlawful reason
Castro v Schriro, 2016 NY Slip Op 05105, Appellate Division, First Department

Supreme Court denied Raymond Castro’s CPLR Article 78 petition seeking a court order annulling  his termination from his position as a probationary correction officer with the New York City Department of Corrections [DOC]. The Appellate Division, reversing the lower court’s action, reinstated Castro’s petition and remanded the matter to Supreme Court for further proceedings.

The Appellate Division summarized the events leading to Castro’s termination as follows: Castro was terminated “after an inmate died because [Castro’s] superior, a captain, thwarted the efforts of several people, including Officer Castro, to assist the inmate with his medical condition. Officer Castro cooperated in the investigation of the inmate's death and the federal prosecution of his superior.”

The decision sets out “the present record” with respect to the events that preceded Castro’s termination in some detail and opines that “Officer Castro's termination, without an explanation [by DOC], appears questionable and in bad faith. Under the circumstances, this Court is unable to conclude that his claim of wrongful termination as a probationary correction officer is without foundation to warrant a pre-answer dismissal based solely on the ground that it fails to state a cause of action.”

Citing Swinton v Safir, 93 NY2d 758, the Appellate Division said that a “probationary employee may be dismissed for almost any reason, or for no reason at all, and the employee has no right to challenge the termination in a hearing or otherwise,* absent a showing that he or she was dismissed in bad faith or for an improper or impermissible reason” and the burden falls on the petitioner to demonstrate by competent proof that bad faith exists, or that the termination was for an improper or impermissible reason.”

DOC had asked Supreme Court to dismiss Castro’s Article 78 petition at the pre-answer stage on the sole ground that his petition failed to state a cause of action. The Appellate Division said it disagreed with Supreme Court's determination that the petition failed to sufficiently state a claim of improper termination of a probationary correction officer, noting that Castro alleged that his termination was arbitrary and capricious, and in bad faith and set out “a factual predicate for his allegations.”

Castro’s petition, said the court, “avers that despite serving as a correction officer who acted in complete accord with DOC's rules and proper protocol, pursuant to orders from his supervisor, and in full cooperation with the investigation of inmate Echevarria's death, which lead to Captain Pendergrass' indictment, Officer Castro was inexplicably terminated.”

Noting that in its appeal DOC made no attempt to refute Castro’s allegations but simply argued that, as a probationary employee, it was not required to furnish Castro with the charges against him and he could be dismissed without a reason being stated.

The Appellate Division rejected DOC’s argument, explaining that Castro’s termination was within the ambit of an exception to this general principle. The court ruled that where a substantial issue of bad faith is raised, as was here the case, in that the termination a probationary employee may not have been the result of the probationary employee's failure to perform his or her duties satisfactorily but may have been due to some improper basis, a petition should not be dismissed on the pleadings.

DOC presented nothing other than a pre-answer motion to dismiss Castro based on the sole ground that Castro’s petition failed to state a claim of improper termination. The Appellate Division said that although the burden falls squarely on Castro to demonstrate by competent proof at an evidentiary hearing that his termination was for an improper or impermissible reason, DOC, as the firing agency, “should be required to provide responsive pleadings so as to explain the basis of the termination.”  

Accordingly, the matter was remanded to Supreme Court for further consideration.

* Courts have ruled that probationers are entitled to notice and hearing if the appointing authority seeks to dismiss the individual during his or her minimum period of probation. The rationale for this was noted in McKee v. Jackson, 152 AD2d 54, where the court said that a probationer is entitled to a minimum period of time to demonstrate his or her ability to successfully perform the duties of the position. In contrast, as the Court of Appeals held in Gray v Bronx Developmental Center, 65 NY2d 904, a probationer may be dismissed without notice and hearing after completing his or her minimum period of probation and prior to the expiration of his or her maximum period of probation.

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