May 06, 2011

Employees of a state as an employer may not sue their employer for alleged violation of the ADEA or similar acts of Congress

Employees of a state as an employer may not sue their employer for alleged violation of the ADEA or similar acts of Congress
Kimel v Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62

Section 58 of the Civil Service Law sets out minimum and maximum age qualifications for initial appointment as a police officer by political subdivisions of New York State other than the City of New York.

Sometimes this “maximum age” for appointment as a police officer was held to be a violation of Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA]. At other times, the “maximum age” for appointment to law enforcement positions was “exempted” from the provisions of the ADEA by Congress.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has said that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to consider “age discrimination” law suits filed under the ADEA, dismissing appeals in cases involving:

1. 36 current and former Florida State University faculty members who complained that they were denied salary increases in violation of ADEA;

2. A Florida corrections officer, Wellington Dick, who contended that his age was one of the considerations that resulted in his being denied a promotion; and

3. Faculty members of an Alabama state-run college who claimed that they were denied promotions and other benefits such as sabbatical leaves and committee assignments because of their age.

The Supreme Court held that state workers cannot sue their employer in federal court for alleged violations of ADEA.

This is consistent with the high court’s rulings in other recent cases limiting Congress’ efforts to subject states to federal law under statutes adopted pursuant to the “commerce clause” such as Alden v Maine, 527 U.S. 706, a case involving suing states in federal court for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.*

The high court said that the 11th Amendment bars a state employee from suing his or her employer in federal court without its consent.

In effect, the court held that the federal courts do not have any jurisdiction to consider suits brought against states by its workers pursuant to legislation enacted by Congress under color of the commerce clause.

Another element in these cases: allegations that actions by the states involved violated the 14th Amendment.

The majority’s response to these 14th Amendment claims in this 5 to 4 decision may have a significant impact in resolving pending and future law suits involving public personnel law and employment in the public sector brought in federal court.

In response to arguments concerning these 14th Amendment claims Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that "States may discriminate on the basis of age without offending the 14th Amendment if the age classification in question is rationally related to a legitimate state interest."

The Supreme Court probably will continue to apply this rationale in cases involving tests of other federal civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, in Alden, the Supreme Court pointed out that the 11th Amendment applies only to states, commenting that political subdivisions of a state could not claim such immunity.

Thus, the Alden ruling indicates that there is an “important limit” to the principle of sovereign immunity barring suits against States -- such immunity does not extend to suits brought against a municipal corporation or other governmental entity that is not an arm of the State.

In each of these three cases, a state was the defendant. As Section 58 is a “state-wide” law adopted by the State Legislature, it could be argued that the Supreme Court’s rulings concerning both the 11th Amendment and the 14th Amendment apply should the age limitations set by Section 58 be challenged.

In any event, the court’s views with respect to the impact of the 14th amendment in cases of alleged discrimination may prove significant insofar as both the state as an employer and a political subdivision of a state as an employer, is concerned.

* The Commerce Clause has been traditionally used by Congress to adopt laws in order to regulate “interstate commerce.” 

Veteran's rights upon the abolishment of positions for economy or other lawful purpose

Veteran's rights upon the abolishment of positions for economy or other lawful purpose
Fromer v Commissioner of Labor, 268 AD2d 707

An individual’s status as veteran within the meaning of Section 75 of the Civil Service Law may provide an individual with rights and benefits beyond the “disciplinary due process rights” usually claimed, as the Fromer case demonstrates.

Howard A. Fromer was serving as the general counsel to the State Energy Office when the agency was abolished on March 31, 1999. Fromer’s application for unemployment insurance was rejected by the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

The Board ruled that Section 565 of the Labor Law barred Fromer from receiving benefits because he served in a major nontenured policymaking or advisory position that was statutorily excluded as employment for the purpose of qualifying for benefits.”

Fromer appealed, claiming that:

1. The exclusion in Labor Law Section 565 (2) (e) should be construed as containing an exception where the individual is terminated as the result of the abolition of his or her position;

2. Section 75(1)(b) of the Civil Service Law gave him “limited tenure” rights by reason of his status as a veteran.

The Appellate Division rejected Fromer’s first argument, commenting that “the statutory exclusion focuses “solely on the nature of claimant’s position in the governmental agency,” not on the reason for a claimant’s termination.

The court said that the Board decided that Labor Law Section 565(2)(e) does not include the abolishment-of-position exception Fromer claimed. As this conclusion is “neither irrational nor unreasonable in light of the absence of language in the statute to suggest that the Legislature intended any such exception,” the Appellate Division ruled that the Board’s statutory interpretation must be upheld since it was “rational and reasonable.”

The alternative argument presented by Fromer did better as it raised an issue not previously considered by the Board -- Section 75(b)(1) of the Civil Service Law provided him with a “a limited grant of tenure” sufficient to qualify him for benefits.

The Appellate Division said that the Board’s determination had to be reversed and remitted reconsideration, rejecting the Attorney General’s argument that the record provided a rational basis for the Board’s determination.

Why? Because, said the court, the Board had not based its determination, much less considered his claim of “limited tenure status,” in deciding Fromer’s eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits.

Commenting that it is well settled that “judicial review of an administrative determination is limited to the grounds invoked by the agency,” the court said that this issue had to be addressed by the Board as to “its determination of [Fromer’s] entitlement to the limited tenure afforded by Section 75(b)(1).”

The Layoff, Preferred List and Reinstatement Manual - a 645 page e-book reviewing the relevant laws, rules and regulations, and selected court and administrative decisions is available from the Public Employment Law Press. Click On for additional information about this electronic reference manual.

May 05, 2011

Qualified immunity from civil lawsuits

Qualified immunity from civil lawsuits 
Doninger v. Niehoff, USCA, Second Circuit, Docket Nos. 09–1452–cv (L), 09–1601–cv (XAP), 09–2261–cv (CON) 

Avery Doninger, a high school student, claimed that school administrators violated her First Amendment rights to free speech by (1) preventing her from running for Senior Class Secretary as a direct consequence of her off-campus internet speech, and (2) prohibiting her from wearing a homemade printed t-shirt at a subsequent school assembly.

The United States Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, said that in adjudicating Doninger’s claims it had to determine if the school administrators involved were entitled to qualified immunity.* 

Concluding that the First Amendment claimed by Doninger was not clearly established, the Second Circuit affirmed Federal District court's decision that administrators were entitled to qualified immunity.

Addressing Doninger’s First Amendment claims at issue with respect to the defense based on the “doctrine of qualified immunity” advanced by the school administrators, the court said the in deciding whether to grant a government official's motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, a court conducts a two-part inquiry.

The first test: considering “the facts" in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, do they show that the [official's] conduct violated a constitutional right.”

If the plaintiff’s cause survives that test, the court then applies a second test: whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of [the official's] alleged misconduct.”

If the court finds that the public officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right, or if it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that his or her conduct did not violate such a right, then the official is protected by qualified immunity.

In determining if a right is clearly established, the Second Circuit said that it looks to whether (1) it was defined with reasonable clarity, (2) the Supreme Court or the Second Circuit has confirmed the existence of the right, and (3) a reasonable defendant would have understood that his conduct was unlawful. Significantly, the court said that “The question is not what a lawyer would learn or intuit from researching case law, but what a reasonable person in [the official’s] position should know about the constitutionality of the conduct.”

Further, said the court, “when faced with a qualified immunity defense, a court should consider the specific scope and nature of a defendant's qualified immunity claim. That is, a determination of whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.”

Citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, the Second Circuit concluded that “it would gravely distort the doctrine of qualified immunity to hold that a school official should fairly be said to ‘know’ that the law forb[ids] conduct not previously identified as unlawful.” In Harlow the U.S. Supreme Court held that “government officials performing discretionary functions are generally shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

Another area in which a qualified privilege may be asserted involves communication. For example, an employee's conduct or behavior may be the subject of oral or written communications between administrators or administrators and employees. If the employee objects to the content of such communications, he or she may sue the employer and the individuals involved for defamation, claiming the contents of the communications concerning his or her behavior constitutes slander [if oral] or libel [if written].

The individuals being sued for defamation in such cases will often respond that the statements they made in such communications are privileged and thus they are immune from liability for their actions.

In Herlihy v Metropolitan Museum of Art, 214 A.D.2d 250, the Appellate Division considered such a case.

Summarized below are the views of the Appellate Division, First Department, concerning an administrators' or an employees' claim that their statements are privileged or that they are protected by some form of immunity in making such statements.

The issue arose when a number of individuals serving as volunteers with the Metropolitan Museum of Art complained that their supervisor, Cecile Herlihy, directed racial or ethnic epithets towards them. Herlihy denied the charges.

After what the Appellate Division characterized as "some sort of investigation," Herlihy was directed to "apologize for her remarks."

Ultimately Herlihy was dismissed by the Museum. She sued, claiming, among other allegations, that she had been slandered when charged with directing racial or ethnic epithets towards the volunteers making the complaint.

The defendants, on the other hand, argued that their statements were protected by an absolute or qualified immunity for the following reasons:

1. State and federal human rights laws gave them absolute immunity from retaliation for filing complaints alleging unlawful discrimination.

2. A "common-law privilege absolutely protected them from defamation suits" based on their communicating these allegations to Museum officials.

3. The statements that made concerning Herlihy were protected by a qualified privilege.

A state Supreme Court justice dismissed the action filed by Herlihy against the Museum but denied the volunteers' motion to dismiss Herlihy's action against them in its entirety. The volunteers appealed the Supreme Court's decision. The Appellate Division addressed each of their arguments in turn, holding that the following guidelines apply:

1. Statutory provisions prohibiting retaliation for filing civil rights complaints do not protect "bad faith complainants making false discriminatory related charges" from defamation actions that might arise following the filing of such complaints.

2. Common-law provides absolute immunity from defamation actions "only to those individuals participating in a judicial, legislative or executive function and is based on the personal position of status of the speaker."

3. Under New York law, a "qualified privilege" or a "qualified immunity" applies only in situations involving "good faith communications by a party having an interest in a subject, or a moral or societal duty to speak, ... made to [another] party having a corresponding interest."

With respect to claims of absolute immunity under common-law, the Appellate Division noted a ruling by the Court of Appeals concluded that a private citizen speaking at a public hearing "was not conferred with absolute privilege because, unlike members of the ... Board, the [individual] had no office at the hearing [see 600 West 115th St. Corp. v Von Gutfeld, 80 NY2d 130].

The Appellate Division ruled that the defendants in this action did not enjoy absolute immunity under common-law because "they did not make their statements in an official capacity while discharging a governmental duty, nor were the statements made during, or for, a judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative hearings."

In considering the defendant's claim to a qualified privilege, the Appellate Division said that "the underlying rationale behind a qualified privilege is that so long as the privilege is not abused, the flow of information between parties sharing a common interest should not be impeded." A qualified privilege will be lost, however, if the statements claimed to be defamatory were "published with malice or with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity...." 

The decision indicates that "common interest warranting a qualified privilege" has been found to exist between employees of an organization [Loughry v Lincoln First Bank, 67 NY2d 369], members of a faculty tenure committee [Stukuls v State of New York, 42 NY2d 272], and employees of a board of education [Green v Kinsella, 36 AD2d 677].

How did the Appellate Division resolve this case? First it upheld the lower court's ruling dismissing Herlihy's action against the Museum for "emotional distress." It then held that "it would be inconsistent to deny an action for emotional distress caused by [being charged] with the use of ethnic slurs while allowing one for being falsely labeled as a user of such slurs." Accordingly, the Appellate Division concluded that Herlihy's action for slander should be dismissed as well.

The Court said that although the racial or ethnic epithets attributed to Herlihy were "deplorable and ... evidence of a certain narrow-mindedness and mean-spiritedness ... [it] ... does not rise to the level of outrage required to recover under a cause of action that is limited to only the most egregious acts." In other words, the allegations of the defendants were not so egregious as to be sufficient to allow Herlihy to recover for being falsely labeled a user of such slurs.

* In contrast to the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity,” the Doctrine of Absolute Immunity insulates certain public officials from civil lawsuits involving the performance of their official duties. Included among those protected by “absolute immunity” are legislators in connection with their legislative duties and judicial and quasi-judicial officers performing judicial or quasi-judicial functions. 

The Doninger decision is posted on the Internet at: 

The Herlihy decision is posted on the Internet at: 

Discipline penalties

Discipline penalties
Nicastro v Safir, App. Div., First Dept, 266 AD2d 167
Queally v Safir, App. Div., First Dept, 266 AD2d 167
Dillon v Safir, App. Div., First Dept., 265 AD2d 196

Penalties imposed following disciplinary action taken pursuant to Section 75 of the Civil Service Law are frequently challenged by appealing either to the civil service commission having jurisdiction or to the courts pursuant to an Article 78 proceeding [Article 78, Civil Practice Law and Rules].

Although the penalty of dismissal is the one most frequently appealed, lesser penalties are also subject to challenge as the Nicastro, Queally and Dillon cases demonstrate.

In Nicastro case, New York City police officer Ann Nicastro challenged her being found guilty of having been discourteous to individuals in the course of effecting an arrest.

The penalty imposed: the loss of 15 days of vacation time. The Appellate Division sustained both the disciplinary determination and the penalty imposed.

In Queally, decided with Nicastro, the court affirmed the imposition of the penalty of the loss of 10 days of vacation time after New York City police officer Robert Queally was found guilty of using excessive force to effect an arrest.

The Appellate Division referred to Pell v Board of Education, 34 NY2d 222, in support of these rulings.

A similar penalty, 10 days suspension without pay, was imposed on a New York City police officer found guilty of directing ethnically offensive epithets to a garage attendant while off-duty [Police Department v Murray, OATH #111/00, 11/26/99].

The third case, Dillon v Safir, also involved allegations of the use of excessive force.*

Here New York City police officer Bradley Dillon contested his being guilty of using excessive force in effecting an arrest and the penalty imposed: “dismissal probation for one year” and the forfeiture of 30 days of annual leave credit.

The Appellate Division dismissed his petition, holding that the disciplinary determination was supported by the records and that the penalty imposed by the Commissioner was reasonable under the circumstances.

* Dillon was subsequently terminated during his disciplinary probationary period [see 270 AD2d 116 – Here the Appellate Division upheld Dillon’s termination without a hearing and without a statement of reasons while he was serving a one-year disciplinary probation imposed pursuant to Administrative Code of the City of New York § 14-115 (d). This penalty was the one affirmed by 265 AD2d 196, above.

Eligibility for benefits pursuant to the Volunteer Firefighters' Benefit Law

Eligibility for benefits pursuant to the Volunteer Firefighters' Benefit Law
Matter of Weinstein v Somers Fire Dist., 37 AD3d 917

Robert Weinstein, a self-employed real estate agent, sustained a back injury in July 2001 while lifting an oxygen tank into an ambulance in furtherance of his duties as a volunteer firefighter. A Workers' Compensation Law Judge ruled that Weinstein’s injury constituted a permanent partial disability and that he had suffered a 50% loss of earning capacity. Accordingly, Weinstein was eligible for benefits provided by Section 10 of the Volunteer Firefighters' Benefit Law.*

The Fire District and its workers' compensation carrier appealed the Workers’ Compensation Board’s determination.

According to the ruling, Weinstein suffered "chronic low back pain . . . [which] reduced his ability to work." The record indicated that Weinstein’s employer had indicated that Weinstein’s “average work hours had been lowered from 60 hours per week to 25 hours per week” because of the work-related injury that resulted in Weinstein’s “chronic low back pain.”

This, said the Appellate Division, constituted substantial evidence in support of the Board's decision that claimant's injury resulted in a 50% reduction in earning capacity.

* The Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law provides, in relevant part: “A volunteer firefighter who is injured in the line of duty is entitled to workers' compensation benefits if he or she demonstrates a loss of earning capacity, namely, an inability to continue performing either the employment duties usually and ordinarily performed at the time of injury or those required by a reasonable substitute."


Subsequent court and administrative rulings, or changes to laws, rules and regulations may have modified or clarified or vacated or reversed the decisions summarized here. Accordingly, these summaries should be Shepardized® or otherwise checked to make certain that the most recent information is being considered by the reader.
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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