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November 22, 2019

Public officer is removed from the position by operation of law should he fail to timely file his oath of office upon appointment or reappointment


§30.1[h] of the Public Officers Law, "Creation  of vacancies," provides, in pertinent part, that an office shall be vacant upon the individual's "refusal or neglect to file his official oath or undertaking ...  within  thirty  days  after  notice  of  his appointment, or within thirty days after the commencement of such  term ...."*

A superintendent of schools, [Petitioner], employed pursuant a written employment contract for a four-year term, was served with "41 charges and specifications" which charges and specifications were later supplemented "with 45 amended charges and specifications."

An impartial hearing officer was designated to conduct a disciplinary arbitration proceeding  “to determine whether charging party [School Board] sustained its burden of proving that [Petitioner] materially breached [his employment contract], acted negligently or engaged in gross misconduct” while serving as superintendent, thereby entitling the School Board to remove him from his position as permitted "pursuant to ... his employment contract.”

The School Board 's general counsel, after reviewing the minutes of School Board meetings for the relevant periods of time, determined there was no indication that Petitioner executed, and timely filed, his required an oath of office with the School District's District Clerk.**

Ultimately the School Board adopted a resolution as follows:

"Resolve, that the office of the District’s Superintendent of Schools is deemed vacant pursuant to N.Y. Public Officers Law §30.1.h and pursuant to [the Commissioner’s decision in Application of Karpen; and further

"Resolve, that the office of the District’s Superintendent of Schools, held by [petitioner], is declared vacant; and further

"Resolve, that the contract between the District and [petitioner] is hereby determined to be void, nullified, and of no force and effect ...."

Petitioner appealed the School Board's action to the Acting Commissioner of Education, Beth Berlin, contending that its resolution was pretextual and a mere attempt to terminate a qualified Superintendent in that "he took and filed an oath of office nunc pro tunc after learning of the requirement" and that “custom and past practices prove that [School Board’s] district clerk has historically administered and filed the oaths of office in a bound oath book for all appointed or elected superintendents, board trustees and officers” – but did not do so for Petitioner." As redress, Petitioner asked the Commissioner to direct his reinstatement to his former position with back pay.

Finding the Petitioner's appeal was timely filed, the Commissioner, nevertheless, dismissed Petitioner's appeal "for lack of proper verification." The Commissioner explained that 8 NYCRR §275.5 requires that all pleadings in an appeal to the Commissioner be verified and if not properly verified, dismissed. Here, said the Commissioner, rather than Petitioner verifying the appeal, the appeal was verified by Petitioner’s attorney.  In words of the Commissioner, "Petitioner’s counsel is not a petitioner in this appeal; therefore, his verification is improper, and the appeal must be dismissed."

Although the Commissioner did not rule on the merits of the School District's argument that Petitioner's failure to file a timely oath of office resulted his removal from his position "by operation of law," it is worth noting that in Lombino v Town Board, Town of Rye, 206 A.D.2d 462, [leave to appeal denied, 84 N.Y.2d 807] the court held that the mandates of §30.1(h) are to be strictly construed in the event the jurisdiction declares a public office vacant because of the failure of the incumbent to file his or her oath of office in a timely manner. Further, the failure to file a timely oath cannot be cured by subsequently filing the required oath [Opinion of the Attorney General, 86-41, Informal]. 

* Subject to other provisions of law, the neglect or failure of any state or local officer to execute and file his or her oath of office and official undertaking within the time limited therefor by law shall not create a vacancy in the office if such officer was on active duty in the armed forces of the United States and absent from the county of his or her residence at the time of his or her election or appointment.

** Public Officers Law §15 provides that the acts of a public officer done without his or her taking or filing an official oath are valid and that this section has been interpreted to confer a right to "the statutory compensation therefor" [Opinions of the Attorney General, 1903 Ops Atty Gen 487 and 1979 Ops Atty Gen 29].

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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