Section 75 of the New York Civil Service Law is designed to give public employees the right to challenge potential disciplinary actions against them. What if the employee is represented by a union? According to a recent (and unsettling) decision from the New York Court of Appeals, an individual employee's rights may be subsumed by the union's collective bargaining agreement.
Ex-Sheriff's Employee Loses All Legal Rights Due to Union Inaction
The case before the Court of Appeals involved an employee who worked as a dispatcher for a sheriff's office in upstate New York. According to the employee, she was fired after the sheriff learned she signed a petition nominating the sheriff's challenger in an upcoming election. The sheriff claimed termination was justified due to the employee's “dishonesty”–she initially denied signing the petition–and for “participating in political campaign activity while on duty.”
The sheriff's termination notice informed the employee she had the right, under her union's collective bargaining agreement (CBA), to file a grievance and seek arbitration under Section 75. The employee did just that. Her employment law attorney informed the sheriff of her grievance and demanded arbitration.
The sheriff ignored the demand, however, on the grounds that the CBA granted the union–not the employee–the exclusive right to file a grievance. Here, the union never took any action on behalf of the employee. The county therefore considered the employee's firing a “closed” matter.
The employee then asked the court for relief. A state supreme court judge agreed the employee was entitled to Section 75 arbitration. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, and the Court of Appeals agreed with the county's interpretation of the law–namely, that the employee had no right to demand Section 75 arbitration without her union's permission.
One judge dissented from the Court of Appeals decision. Associate Judge Rowan D. Wilson said the plain language of the CBA noted an employee presenting a grievance has the “right to be represented” by the union “if the employee so chooses.” The union, in turn, has the right to decide whether or not to “proceed to binding arbitration.” Nothing in this language, Judge Rowan maintained, actually bars an employee from seeking arbitration on their own. There may be cases in which a union elects to proceed with a grievance even when the employee does not want to, because a particular disciplinary decision “may have consequences for other union members.”
More troubling, Judge Rowan noted, was that under the majority's interpretation of the CBA and New York law, the employee “has now lost both” her right to seek arbitration or a Section 75 proceeding.
Do You Need Independent Employment Law Advice?
Unfortunately, this decision illustrates why unionized employees need to be especially careful when attempting to exercise their legal rights. If you are a civil servant affected by an unfair labor decision and need advice from an independent New York employment law attorney, contact the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, today.