May 6, 2022

An employee cannot be found guilty of disciplinary charges not included in the notice of discipline or a timely amendment to such notice

The employee [Petitioner] was terminated from his position following an investigation conducted by the Inspector General's office into his alleged misconduct and ultimately was served with a notice of disciplinary charges pursuant to Civil Service Law §75. The notice of discipline set out nine charges of purported official misconduct in violation of Penal Law §195.00. Petitioner's answer denied all of the charges and Petitioner requested a hearing.

A §75 disciplinary hearing was held, after which the Hearing Officer recommended dismissal of all of the charges preferred against Petitioner. 

The appointing authority [Director] adopted the Hearing Officer's recommendation to the extent of dismissing all charges except Charge 3. The Director sustained Charge 3 and imposed the penalty of dismissal of Petitioner from his position with the employer. 

Petitioner next commenced a CPLR Article 78  proceeding seeking a court order annulling the Director's determination with respect to Charge 3, contending, among other things, that the Director erred as a matter of law and abused her discretion in finding Petitioner guilty of acts of misconduct that were not alleged in the charge.

Supreme Court transferred the matter to the Appellate Division, which said, "we must annul [the Director's] determination as to [Charge] 3" because it believed that the Petitioner's due process rights were violated.

Charge 2 had alleged that Petitioner had "accosted a particular ... employee with unwanted and inappropriate conversation" while at an after-hours social gathering at a restaurant. The language of Charge 3 addressed Petitioner's behavior toward the same employee at "similar after-hours social functions" as set out in Charge 2.

In addition to denying all of the charges in the notice of discipline, Petitioner requested that the charges be particularized and that he be provided with the names of the employees referred to in the charges. In response to the request for particularization, the employer  served Petitioner with an amended notice of discipline which, among other things, amended Charge 3 to specify that, at these same after-hours social functions, Petitioner inappropriately referred to the employee's sexual orientation but the Charge was "otherwise unchanged."

At the disciplinary hearing, the female employee testified that the conversation described in the amended Charge 3 occurred in the workplace rather than at an "after-hours social function." The Director determined that Charge 3 had proven implicitly and "amended by the testimony of [the female employee] during the hearing." The Appellate Division observed that this "implicit amendment" was first pronounced in the Director's decision, well after the close of proof, for the purpose of conforming the Charge 3 to the proof, which in effect changed the location of Petitioner's alleged misconduct conduct from an after-hours social function to the workplace.

The Appellate Division opined that the Petitioner's due process rights were violated by, in essence, convicting him of uncharged conduct and imposing the severe penalty of termination based on such uncharged conduct. The court noted that the standard of review of such a determination made after a disciplinary hearing is whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the first fundamental of due process is "notice of the charges made." 

This principle, said the court, equally applies to an administrative disciplinary proceeding "for even in that forum no person may lose substantial rights because of wrongdoing shown by the evidence, but not charged," citing Matter of Murray v Murphy, 24 NY2d 150 and other court decisions. In the words of the court: "Fundamentally, the determination made in a disciplinary proceeding 'must be based on the charges made' and it is error to find a public employee guilty of uncharged specifications of misconduct and impose a penalty thereon."

In some circumstances, however, the Appellate Division noted that amendments of the charges filed against the individual are allowed, calling attention to the fact that "a minor amendment to a charge, made 'part way through [a] hearing, and at a time when [the] petitioner had ample opportunity to respond to the amendment, did not deprive [the petitioner] of due process'."

In contrast, however, the court found that Petitioner was afforded no such opportunity as the amendment was made by the Director in her decision "after the proof was most assuredly closed and the Hearing Officer's determination referred." This was characterized as a "fatal flaw in this argument" as the testimony that was elicited at the hearing essentially amounted to a new charge based on a totally different context: conduct that allegedly took place at an after-hours social functions "was transported to the formal office setting."

Also noted by the court was the fact that the record is void of any request by the employer, "formally or informally, before or during the hearing, to amend the charge to give [Petitioner] notice that the behavior complained of was committed in the workplace."* Further, opined the Appellate Division, "the onus is not upon the employee to make the employer's case for it by objecting when hearing testimony strays from the conduct charged [and the] employee has the right to assume that such testimony will be properly rejected, as the Hearing Officer indicated here."

Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that the portion of the determination sustaining Charge 3 should be annulled.

* The Appellate Division also rejected the employer's argument that the challenged amendment was proper because no objection was made to the "amending" testimony given by the witness at the disciplinary hearing.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's posted on the Internet.


New York Public Personnel Law handbooks

The Discipline Book - A concise guide to disciplinary actions involving public officers and employees in New York State set out as an e-book. For more about this electronic handbook, click HERE.

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.

Disability Benefits for fire, police and other public sector personnel - an e-book focusing on retirement for disability under the NYS Employees' Retirement System, the NYS Teachers' Retirement System, General Municipal Law Sections 207-a/207-c and similar statutes providing benefits to employees injured both "on-the-job" and "off-the-job." For more information about this e-book click HERE.

The Layoff, Preferred List and Reinstatement Manual -This e-book reviews the relevant laws, rules and regulations, and selected court and administrative decisions. Click HERE for more information.

 

 

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