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Friday, May 12, 2017

Applying the Pell Doctrine in a disciplinary action


Applying the Pell Doctrine in a disciplinary action
Sullivan v County of Rockland, 2017 NY Slip Op 03519, Appellate Division, Second Department

Disciplinary penalties imposed on public employees in New York State must meet the test set out in Pell v Board of Educ. of Union Free School Dist. No. 1 of Towns of Scarsdale and Mamaroneck, 34 NY2d 222, generally referred to as the "Pell Doctrine."  Essentially the Pell Doctrine instructs that any permissible disciplinary penalty may be imposed on an employee found guilty of one or more disciplinary charges and specifications by an appointing authority or arbitrator unless the court finds that, considering the circumstances underlying the disciplinary action, such a penalty is "shocking to one's sense of fairness."

The genesis of this litigation was a disciplinary action involving an individual [Employee] who had served with the Rockland County Department of Social Services [DSS] since 1990. The appointing authority initiated disciplinary action against Employee alleging of gross misconduct — "falsification of business records." The Charge served on Employee set out two specifications alleging Employee had made false entries in DSS's computer system.

Following a disciplinary hearing, a hearing officer found that DSS had submitted substantial evidence in support of both specifications set out in the Charge and recommended that Employee be terminated from his position.

The appointing authority adopted the hearing officer's findings and recommendation as to the penalty to be imposed and terminated Employee.

Employee challenged his dismissal and the Appellate Division subsequently determined that  "specification number 2 was not supported by substantial evidence." The court granted Employee's Article 78 petition to the extent of annulling the appointing officer's determination that found Employee guilty of specification number 2, vacated the penalty imposed, dismissal, but otherwise confirmed the determination. The court then remitted the matter to the appointing authority for a determination of the appropriate penalty to be imposed in view of the finding that Employee was guilty of specification number 1.*

The appointing authority issued a new determination based solely on Employee's having been found guilty of specification number 1 and, again, imposing the penalty of termination of employment. Employee again filed an Article 78 petition seeking judicial review the penalty imposed after the appointing authority reconsideration of the matter.

The Supreme Court granted Employee's petition and remitted the matter to the appointing authority for the imposition of a lesser penalty. The appointing authority appealed the Supreme Court's ruling.

Applying the Pell Doctrine, the Appellate Division said that "[a]n administrative penalty must be upheld unless it is so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness, thus constituting an abuse of discretion as a matter of law." The court explained that "[a] result is shocking to one's sense of fairness if the sanction imposed is so grave in its impact on the individual subject to it that it is disproportionate to the misconduct, incompetence, failure, or turpitude of the individual, or 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."

In this instance the Appellate Division found that the penalty imposed was so grave in its impact on the Employee that it was disproportionate to the misconduct, or the risk of harm to DSS or the public.

Thus, under the circumstances of this case, the Appellate Division ruled that the penalty of termination of employment for "this single incident of misconduct" was so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness, and constituted an abuse of discretion as a matter of law.

As Employee's actions "were not so egregious or of such moral turpitude as to justify termination of his employment in light of his previously unblemished record," the Appellate Division concluded that Supreme Court properly granted Employee's Article 78 petition and remitted the matter to the appointing authority for the imposition of a lesser penalty.


The decision is posted on the Internet at:

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions - A 765 page electronic book [e-book] focusing on penalties imposed on public employees of New York State and its political subdivisions found guilty of misconduct or incompetence by hearing officers and arbitrators and the judicial review of such penalties. More information is available on the Internet at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com.
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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/

A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances 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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