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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If a disinterested party could concluded the appointing authority had adjudged the matter in advance of hearing it, remanding the matter to a qualified and impartial individual is required

2013 NY Slip Op 08575, Appellate Division, Third Department
 
A fire inspector [Inspector] employed by the Village also served as the president of its firefighters union. Inspector was served with disciplinary charges and specifications Civil Service Law §75 alleging misconduct. The charges alleged that Inspector had engaged in an oral altercation with the Fire Chief concerning a directive issued by the Chief, during which he made two statements that resulted in disciplinary charges being filed.
 
Inspector filed an improper practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) shortly after being served with the disciplinary charges alleging that the Village’s decision to discipline him amounted to anti-union animus.
 
At the hearing on the disciplinary charges Inspector acknowledged that he had made the one statement but denied making the second statement alleged in the charges filed against him. Crediting the testimony of witnesses to the encounter to the effect that Inspector had, in fact, made the second statement, the Hearing Officer found Inspector guilty of the charges and recommended a period of unpaid suspension. The Village’s Mayor sustained the findings of guilt but modified the penalty to be imposed on Inspector.*
 
During the PERB hearing, held shortly after the Mayor had sustained the findings in the disciplinary hearing, Inspector again testified that he did not make the second statement.
 
This resulted in Inspector being served with new disciplinary charges alleging misconduct amounting to perjury and making a false official statement, as well as incompetence for failure to be truthful based on his testimony at the PERB hearing and his testimony at the disciplinary hearing.
 
This second §75 disciplinary hearing resulted in Inspector being found guilty of the charges and the Hearing Officer recommending that his employment be terminated. The Mayor adopted the findings and penalty of the Hearing Officer, whereupon Inspector filed an Article 78 petition seeking an order vacating the Mayor’s action. Supreme Court dismissed the petition and Inspector appealed.
 
The Appellate Division first noted that “Where a witness testifies falsely under oath, he or she may properly be subject to additional proceedings and sanctions, noting that the United States Supreme Court has held “…under circumstances indistinguishable from those present here … that ‘a [g]overnment agency may take adverse action against an employee because the employee made false statements in response to an underlying charge of misconduct’,” citing Lachance v Erickson, 522 US 262.
 
Notwithstanding this, the Appellate Division said that “Reversal is required,” explaining that the Mayor was disqualified from reviewing the Hearing Officer's recommendations. Although an administrative decision maker is not deemed biased or disqualified merely on the basis that he or she reviewed a previous administrative determination and ruled against the same employee, or presided over a prior proceeding involving a similar defense or similar charges, in this instance the Appellate Division found that there was evidence indicating that the administrative decision maker may have prejudged the matter at issue. Thus, the court concluded, “disqualification is required.”
 
The Appellate Division noted that in his decision in the first disciplinary proceeding, the Mayor not only agreed with the Hearing Officer's report, but also stated his own opinion that "I do not believe [Inspector 's] account of what was said."
 
Further, said the court, his affidavit submitted in Inspector's CPLR article 78 proceeding challenging the first disciplinary determination, “the Mayor went one step further.” In explaining the portion of his decision addressing Inspector's version of the second statement, the Mayor said that he found that version "incredible."
 
Although the falsity of Inspector 's account of the second statement was not at issue in the second disciplinary proceeding, as that issue was conclusively determined in the first disciplinary proceeding, the central issue in the second disciplinary proceeding was whether Inspector's false testimony was given knowingly and willingly. Thus, after concluding that he did not believe Inspector's account of what was said and that Inspector’s version was "incredible," the Mayor put himself in the position of determining whether the statement that Inspector did in fact make was made knowingly and willfully.
 
The problem, said the court, was that these questions were inextricably intertwined, and the Mayor's statements regarding Inspector's testimony in the first proceeding were such that "a disinterested observer may conclude that [the Mayor] ha[d] in some measure adjudged the facts" surrounding the knowing and willful question "in advance of hearing it."
 
Accordingly, the Appellate Division ruled that the Mayor should have recused himself and because he did not, his determination was affected by an error of law.
 
The proper remedy, said the court, Judge Egan dissenting in part, was to remit the matter for a de novo review of the present record and the Hearing Officer's recommendations by a qualified and impartial individual
 
* Inspector commenced a CPLR article 78 proceeding challenging the determination, and Supreme Court dismissed the petition. Inspector did not appeal.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2013/2013_08575.htm
 
Reprinted by permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein
 

 

 

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