August 27, 2021

Considering the prior disciplinary record of an employee found guilty of disciplinary charges in determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed

The Petitioner [Firefighter] in this CPLR Article 78 proceeding was served with disciplinary charges pursuant to §75 of the Civil Service Law alleging that he had engaged in an act of insubordination when he failed to obey an order while actively engaged in fire suppression operations.

Firefighter denied the charges and at the disciplinary hearing that followed Firefighter and his superior officer [Captain] provided sharply conflicting testimony as to what occurred in the course of his being engaged in a fire suppression operation.

The designated hearing officer credited the Captain's testimony at the hearing, found that a preponderance of the credible evidence supported the conclusion that the Firefighter was guilty of insubordination, and recommended that the Firefighter be:

1. Returned to the payroll without back pay;

2. Suspended for a period of three months without pay; and

3. His employment be on a "last-chance basis" for a period of two years.

City Administrator [Administrator] adopted the findings of the hearing officer that Firefighter was guilty of insubordination but declined to adopt the hearing officer's recommendation with respect to the penalty and sent Firefighter a letter informing him that his prior disciplinary record would be considered in setting the penalty to be imposed and attached the disciplinary records that would be considered. Firefighter responded to Administrator's letter.

Ultimately Administrator found that Firefighter "was incorrigible, based upon that incident, as well as a review of [Firefighter's] prior disciplinary record" determined that the appropriate penalty was termination of [Firefighter's] employment" as a firefighter.

Firefighter commenced this proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78 to review the City Administrator's determination, contending, among other things, that the findings of insubordination were not supported by substantial evidence. Supreme Court transferred the proceeding to the Appellate Division pursuant to CPLR 7804(g).

Contrary to Firefighter's contentions, the Appellate Division found that he was provided the appropriate due process in this matter, given access to his disciplinary record and was allowed to submit a written response offering mitigating circumstances. The court noted that the City Administrator did not rely on unestablished allegations when considering the penalty to be imposed on Firefighter as the record indicated that Firefighter "had prior knowledge of all unusual occurrence reports in his disciplinary records and had waived his rights as to the matter that he claimed was never settled or adjudicated."

Noting that in a proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78, judicial review of factual findings made by an administrative agency following an evidentiary hearing is limited to consideration of whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court explained that "Substantial evidence means more than a 'mere scintilla of evidence,' and the test of whether substantial evidence exists in a record is one of rationality, taking into account all the evidence on both sides." Further, opined the Appellate Division, "Where there is conflicting testimony and questions of credibility, the reviewing court may not weigh the evidence or reject the administrative agency's determination of credibility."

Citing  Matter of Fernandez v Rodriguez, 180 AD3d 897, the Appellate Division said that the hearing officer resolved the issue of credibility as between the two witnesses, and it discerned "no basis to disturb that determination." Accordingly, the finding that Firefighter was guilty of insubordination was held to be supported by substantial evidence in the record.

Addressing the penalty imposed by the City Administrator, the Appellate Division opined that "A court may set aside an administrative penalty only if it is so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness."  [A] result is shocking to one's sense of fairness if 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", the so-called Pell Doctrine.*

Further, said the court, "That reasonable minds might disagree over what the proper penalty should have been does not provide a basis for ... refashioning the penalty", concluding with the observation that "[u]nder the circumstances presented here, the penalty of termination of [Firefighter's] employment with the City was not so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness."

Accordingly, the Appellate Division confirmed the City Administrator's determination, denied Firefighter's petition and dismissed the proceeding "on the merits, with costs."

* Matter of Pell v Board of Educ. of Union Free School Dist. No. 1 of Towns of Scarsdale & Mamaroneck, Westchester County, 34 NY2d at 234.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division decision in this action. 

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A Reasonable Disciplinary Penalty Under the Circumstances - The text of this publication focuses on determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed on an employee in the public service in instances where the employee has been found guilty of misconduct or incompetence. For more information click HERE.


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