Courts frequently are asked to review a penalty imposed by an appointing authority following a disciplinary action. Typically such actions are brought by the employee on the theory that the penalty imposed was too harsh.
In such cases the courts usually apply the so-called Pell Doctrine: was the penalty imposed so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness [Pell v Board of Education, 34 NY2d 222].
This case is the mirror image of most Pell Doctrine cases: a complaint that the penalty imposed was too lenient!
The case arose when the
School District [District] filed disciplinary charges against a teacher prior to the amendment of §3020-a of the Education Law in 1994 [Chapter 691, Laws of 1994].
An (old) §3020-a hearing panel found a teacher guilty of a number of specifications set out in charges alleging "inappropriate remarks and inappropriate physical contact" with female students by the teacher. The penalty imposed: suspension without pay for one and one-half years. The District challenged the §3020-a hearing panel's decision by asking the New York State Commissioner of Education to intervene. The District contended that the penalty should have been "more stringent." The Commissioner sustained the penalty imposed by the panel. The District then asked the courts to impose a harsher penalty -- dismissal.
What standard would the courts apply in determining if the penalty imposed is too lenient? The Appellate Division said it would apply same Pell standard that courts use to determine if a penalty is too harsh.*
Finding it neither arbitrary nor capricious, the Appellate Division sustained the Commissioner's ruling. The Court said that the underlying facts, coupled the absence of charges ever having previously been filed against the teacher during his 21-year career, supported the Commissioner's determination that the penalty imposed was proportionate to the offenses for which the teacher was found guilty.
In contrast, in Hickman v Poughkeepsie City School District, 237 A.D.2d 289, the Appellate Division sustained the dismissal of a school custodian found guilty of excessive absence, habitual lateness, falsification of his time sheets and excessive use of the telephone during his working hours as consistent with the Pell Doctrine.
The decision is posted on the Internet at:
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A Reasonable Disciplinary Penalty Under the Circumstances