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Friday, April 28, 2017

Determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty under the circumstances


Determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty "under the circumstances"
King v New York State Off. of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Servs., 2017 NY Slip Op 03098, Appellate Division, Third Department
Figueroa v New York State Off. of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Servs., 2017 NY Slip Op 03104, Appellate Division, Third Department

As the Court of Appeals explained in Pell v Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 1 of Towns of Scarsdale and Mamaroneck, 34 NY2d 222, commonly referred to as the "Pell Doctrine," a court may "set aside a determination by an administrative agency only if the measure of punishment or discipline imposed is so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness." A result is shocking to one's sense of fairness, said the court, when the "sanction imposed is so grave in its impact on the individual subjected to it that it is disproportionate to the misconduct, incompetence, failure or turpitude of the individual, or to the harm or risk of harm to the agency or institution, or to the public generally visited or threatened by the derelictions of the individuals."

Both the King and Figueroa decisions address the application of the Pell Doctrine in the context of the loss of a license or certification required to lawfully perform the duties of the position, thereby resulting in the automatic termination of the individual's employment.*

The King Case

King, an Addictions Counselor 2 employed by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services [OASAS), was required to maintain a valid Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor [CASAC] certification, which credential is issued by OASAS.

In response to an "official complaint" alleging that King had violated certain ethical provisions prohibiting a counselor from engaging in a sexual relationship or activity with an OASAS client, OASAS notified King of the complaint and his right to an administrative hearing. King elected to exercise his right to the hearing.

The Hearing Officer found that King and the client had a relationship that "far exceeded an appropriate and professional one" and that "it comprised potential, and actual, harm" to the client. The Hearing Officer also found that, while the relationship between King and the client had "sexual overtones," it was "debatable" whether they engaged in an actual sexual encounter. As a penalty, the Hearing Officer recommended a one-year suspension of King's CASAC credential.

The Commissioner of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services adopted the Hearing Officer's recommendation and subsequently notified King that his employment was being terminated due to the suspension of his CASAC credential. King initiated a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the suspension of his CASAC credential and the termination of his employment.

The Appellate Division said that judicial review of an agency's administrative determination made following a hearing is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. The court indicated that "[S]ubstantial evidence consists of proof within the whole record of such quality and quantity as to generate conviction in and persuade a fair and detached fact finder that, from that proof as a premise, a conclusion or ultimate fact may be extracted reasonably ... probatively and logically."

The court ruled that there was substantial evidence to support the suspension of King's CASAC credential, including the client's testimony that King bought her gifts such as "a glass rose and earrings, and they exchanged personal messages and pictures via text messaging." Further, King admitted that he had regular contact with the client that was unrelated to his professional relationship with her. The Appellate Division concluded that in view of this relationship, the administrative decision that King engaged in inappropriate behavior with the client was supported by substantial evidence.

As to the penalty imposed, the suspension of King's CASAC credential and the automatic termination of his employment, the Appellate Division ruled that "[e]ven though there was insufficient evidence to establish that an actual sexual encounter between the client and [King] occurred, in light of [King's] inappropriate behavior ... the penalty of suspending [King's] CASAC credential does not shock one's sense of fairness."

The court also rejected King's argument that he was denied due process because OASAS did not proceed under the disciplinary procedures set forth in the relevant collective bargaining agreement, explaining that in this instance King's termination from OASAS "stemmed from his failure to maintain a qualification critical to his employment and, therefore, the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement did not apply."


The Figueroa Case

Figueroa was also an employee of OASAS, serving in the position of Addictions Counselor I. In accordance with a procedure set out in the relevant Collective Bargaining Agreement, OASAS interrogated Figueroa about her decision to go jogging alone with a patient on five separate occasions. Although Figueroa was not formally disciplined for this conduct, her supervisor issued a counseling memorandum concerning the event.

As an Addictions Counselor I, Figueroa was required to be a CASAC. In the course of a subsequent, unrelated investigation at the facility, Figueroa jogging incident and another incident involving her record keeping activities were raised. As a result OASAS filed two complaints alleging that Figueroa had violated certain CASAC canons of conduct.

After an investigation, OASAS advised Figueroa that it was recommending that her CASAC credential be suspended for three years -- one year for the jogging complaint and two years for the record-keeping complaint. Figueroa requested a hearing on both complaints, which were consolidated and an administrative hearing was held.

The Hearing Officer issued a report finding that Figueroa did engage in the conduct set forth in the two complaints, but recommended lesser penalties — a six-month suspension of Figueroa's CASAC credential for the jogging incident and a reprimand for her record-keeping discrepancies. OASAS issued a final order accepting the Hearing Officer's findings and recommendation with regard to the jogging complaint. As to the record-keeping complaint, OASAS suspended Figueroa's credential for six months — to run concurrently with the six-month suspension for the jogging complaint.

OASAS then advised Figueroa that she was terminated "as a result of [her] failure to maintain a valid, statutorily required qualification for [employment in her] position." Figueroa commenced a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging both the suspension of her credential and the determination to terminate her employment based on the suspension.

The Appellate Division said that given Figueroa's concession during the hearing that she went jogging with a patient and postdated certain records, it found that substantial evidence supported the Hearing Officer's determination with respect to the alleged acts of misconduct. Notwithstanding this holding, the court then considered the question of whether OASAS abused its discretion by imposing the concurrent suspensions that effectively compelled Figueroa termination for failing to have a "valid credential" in place.

Applying the Pell Doctrine, the Appellate Division concluded that "[u]nder the circumstances presented, [it found] that OASAS's determination to impose a six-month suspension of [Figueroa's] credential for each of the complaints was disproportionate to the offenses charged."

Due to the unique circumstance that Figueroa was employed by OASAS in a classified position in the Civil Service of the State, the Appellate Division said that OASAS knew that the practical effect of the suspension was that she would be rendered temporarily unqualified to hold her civil service position and, indeed, OASAS summarily dismissed her for failing to maintain her credential. The court concluded that this result makes little sense as:

1. Figueroa had been employed by OASAS as a CASAC for more than six years with no apparent disciplinary record and consistently satisfactory performance reviews;

2. Considering the jogging complaint, there was neither an allegation nor any evidence that Figueroa was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the patient or that the patient was harmed in any way;

3. OASAS, with full knowledge of the regulations governing CASAC credentials, initially decided to simply counsel Figueroa about the jogging events and Figueroa testified that she did not engage in the same or similar conduct after being counseled;

4. With respect to the record-keeping complaint, when OASAS explained its determination to reject the Hearing Officer's penalty recommendation, it erroneously claimed that the Hearing Officer did not have the authority to recommend the penalty of reprimand;

5. The Hearing Officer noted the uncontroverted evidence was that, in accord with the then prevailing practice, Figueroa's supervisor directed her to postdate the records in question knowing that she was going to be out of the office and it was only after the complaint was lodged was this practice changed; and

6. There was no showing that the agency or the public was harmed or that Figueroa was personally enriched by her conduct.

The Appellate Division said that, in its view, OASAS should not disregard its role as employer where it is exercising its credentialing oversight, but that is essentially what occurred here. As an employer, OASAS chose only to counsel Figueroa, but, as the credentialing authority, it imposed an administrative penalty that mandated her termination, the ultimate disciplinary penalty.

Considering the nature of the misconduct, Figueroa's otherwise satisfactory employment record and the known impact of the penalty imposed, the Appellate Division found that the effective penalty of suspension of Figueroa's credential, which resulted in her termination from her employment, too severe and annulled the imposed the penalty of suspending Figueroa's credential and the resulting termination of her employment.

* With respect to the loss or failure to obtain or renew a required license or permit or certification, courts have viewed such individuals as “unqualified,” in contrast to being “incompetent,” to perform the duties of the position. Common examples include the revocation of a truck driver’s permit to operate a motor vehicle on public roads, loss of an attorney’s license to practice law and the expiration of a temporary permit to teach. All that appears to be necessary in such cases is for the appointing authority to make a reasonable inquiry to determine if the employee, in fact, possess the required document and thus may lawfully perform the duties of the position. An employee charged with failing to possess such a document required to perform the duties of his or position is only entitled to notice of the allegation and a reasonable opportunity to produce the required document. Relevant court rulings include Fowler v City of Saratoga Springs, 215 A.D.2d 819 (City Engineer lawfully dismissed for failure to obtain his Professional Engineer’s license by a specified date); Meliti v Nyquist, 53 AD2d 951, affirmed 41 NY2d 183 (immediate suspensions of teachers was lawful upon their teaching licenses expiring); and O’Keefe v Niagara Mohawk Power Corp, 714 FSupp 622, (traveling company demonstrator did not suffer unlawfully discrimination when a private sector employer terminated him after his driver’s license was suspended).

The King decision is posted on the Internet at:

The Figueroa decision is posted on the Internet at:


http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_03104.htm
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A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances - a 618-page volume focusing on New York State court and administrative decisions addressing an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed on an employee in the public service found guilty of misconduct or incompetence. For more information click on http://booklocker.com/7401.html
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