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Sunday, November 11, 2012

A letter placed in an employee file indicating “serious misconduct” that could negatively impact his or her eligibility for future promotion goes beyond “constructive criticism

D'Angelo v Scoppetta, 2012 NY Slip Op 06989, Court of Appeals
May a letter from the Assistant Commissioner of the Fire Department of the City of New York (Department) to a firefighter advising him that he violated the Department's Code of Conduct and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Policy could adversely affect his eligibility for promotion in the future be made part of firefighter's permanent “EEO file” without first providing him an opportunity for a hearing pursuant to §15-113 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York?
Supreme Court had concluded that "the letter [was] a disciplinary reprimand and not a critical evaluation" and, therefore, the firefighter had the right to a formal hearing and other due process safeguards. * The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the lower courts’ rulings, holding that the firefighter was entitled to a due process hearing before the Department may place such a letter in his permanent file.
The Department conceded that the Administrative Code §15-113 required a hearing before its employees could be subject to punishment by reprimand but contended that a hearing was not necessary in this instance because the letter it placed in firefighter's permanent EEO file was not a formal reprimand but merely a critical evaluation not subject to the same due process protections. The Court of Appeals, as did the lower courts, disagreed.
Citing Holt v Board of Educ. of Webutuck Cent. School Dist. (52 NY2d 625, the Court of Appeals contrasted the Department’s action with school administrators placing letters in the permanent files of teachers critical of their performance without conducting §3020-a disciplinary hearings.
In one instance, the teacher was admonished for failing to maintain an orderly classroom after he had been directed to do so and for interrupting the class of another teacher. The letters characterized the teacher as incompetent and insubordinate. A second teacher had been sent a letter warning him that his regular absences from his assigned duties violated school policy. The court said it had concluded these letters did not trigger the due process protections of Education Law §3020-a because they were simply "critical evaluations" and not "formal reprimand[s]."
Although the letters sent to the teachers were "sharply critical," the Court of Appeals said that the fundamental purpose of the communications was not to punish but to identify "a relatively minor breach of school policy and to encourage compliance with that policy in the future."
The facts in the firefighter’s case, said the court, “are readily distinguishable from the facts in Holt.” 
While the teachers had received a letter from an immediate supervisor criticizing their performance, the firefighter was the subject of a formal investigation conducted by the Department's EEO office over a two-year period in response to the complaint alleging that he had used “racially offensive language” that had involved the interviewing of several “eyewitnesses” as well as the firefighter.
Significantly, the court noted that ultimately the EEO office determined that the evidence it had collected substantiated the complaint and it supplied a detailed report to the Assistant Commissioner. The Assistant Commissioner then reviewed the EEO office's findings and then “conferred with the Commissioner himself who ultimately approved the EEO office's determination.” This said the court “stands in contrast to the letters in Holt, which only reflect the views of a particular supervisor.”
Further, said the court, the letter to the firefighter noted that the document "serve[d] as a formal Notice of Disposition of the filed Complaint" and “in no uncertain terms,” informed the firefighter that “a thorough investigation revealed that he ‘exercised unprofessional conduct’ and ‘made an offensive racial statement’ [and] as a consequence of his misconduct, he was required to review and sign an EEO Advisory Memorandum and participate in further EEO training.”
The Court of Appeals said that it agreed with the firefighter that “the requirement to participate in additional EEO training is a form of discipline and not, as the Department contends, mere encouragement to comply with EEO policy.”
In addition, the decision notes that the Department conceded at oral argument that the EEO's finding that [the firefighter] was in breach of its racial discrimination policy is serious misconduct that could negatively impact his eligibility for future promotion.
Concluding that the letter sent to the firefighter constituted a “formal reprimand under Administrative Code §15-11,” the court ruled that the Department had denied the firefighter his right to administrative due process by placing the letter in his file without first conducting a hearing. Affirming the Appellate Division’s ruling, Justice Smith dissenting, the majority of the court ruled that the letter to which the firefighter had objected was properly expunged from his permanent EEO file.
* Supreme Court noted that it could not order a hearing because, as the parties conceded, the applicable statute of limitations for conducting such a hearing had expired.

COMMENT: As the Court of Appeals indicated in Holt, a “counseling memorandum” that is given to an employee and placed in his or her personnel file concerning unacceptable performance and the actions that should be taken by the individual to improve his or her work constitutes a lawful means of instructing the employee. 

In Matter of Fusco, Comm. of Ed. Decision 14,396 and Matter of Irving, Comm. of Ed. Decision 14,373, the Commissioner of Education found that the alleged "critical comment" exceeded the parameters circumscribing "lawful instruction" concerning unacceptable performance. 

In Fusco’s case, the Commissioner said that “contents of the [counseling] memorandum” did not fall within the parameters of a “permissible evaluation” despite the school board’s claim that the memorandum was "intended to encourage positive change" in Fusco’s performance. The Commissioner noted that the memorandum "'contains no constructive criticism or a single suggestion for improvement." Rather, said the Commissioner, the memorandum focused on "castigating [Fusco] for prior alleged misconduct."

In Irving’s case, a school principal was given a letter critical of her performance and the next day reassigned to another school where she was to serve as an assistant principal. The Commissioner ruled that these two actions, when considered as a single event, constituted disciplinary action within the meaning of Section 3020-a of the Education Law." .
The D'Angelo decision is posted on the Internet at:
Reprinted by permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein

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