Civil service laws provide specific due process rights for state employees who may be the subject of disciplinary or termination actions. These rights include the ability to sue state agencies for violations. In some cases, a person may even have a cause of action against an individual supervisor, although such cases are more difficult to win due to the legal principle of “qualified immunity.”
Appeals Court Rejects Lawsuit Against Ex-SUNY Potsdam President
Here is an illustration of what we are talking about. This is taken from a recent decision by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York City, Tooly v. Schwaller. The plaintiff in this case previously worked as a motor vehicle operator, a civil service position, for the State University of New York at Potsdam. In 2011, a human resources official at SUNY asked the New York State Department of the Civil Service to conduct a “mental stability evaluation” of the plaintiff. The HR official cited a number of incidents involving the plaintiff that prompted her request.
According to the plaintiff, he was not made aware of the HR official's letter. Instead, he received notice from the university's president at the time, informing the plaintiff he was “on an involuntary leave of absence effective the following day.” The president directed the plaintiff to undergo the medical exam requested by HR and that the plaintiff's failure to comply could result in further “disciplinary action.” The plaintiff said he requested more information about the president's decision, but this request was rejected.
The plaintiff subsequently refused to undergo the medical examination. The plaintiff then hired an attorney, who filed yet another request for additional information, which university officials again refused. Ultimately, the university fired the plaintiff after he failed to appear at a “disciplinary interrogation meeting.”
The plaintiff later filed a federal lawsuit against a number of defendants. As relevant here, the plaintiff sued the now-former university president in his individual capacity. Essentially, the plaintiff said the former president failed to follow the requirements of New York civil service law before firing him, and that this constitutes a violation of the plaintiff's federal constitutional right to “due process” under the Fourteenth Amendment. In response, the former president maintained he had “qualified immunity” from being sued personally over decisions he made while in office.
The trial court rejected the qualified immunity argument. But the Second Circuit reversed. It explained that qualified immunity protects state officials unless they “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Here, there was no “clearly established law” applicable to the plaintiff's situation. Based on the facts alleged, the university president did afford the plaintiff due process by scheduling the medical exam and the disciplinary hearing. The plaintiff's failure to show–even for “potentially valid reasons”–does not mean the university president was obligated by established law to provide “alternative procedures.”
Speak with a New York Section 75 Lawyer Today
If you work in the civil service and are facing any type of disciplinary action, your first step should be to contact a qualified New York employment attorney. Civil service regulations are quite complicated and can easily trip up someone who is not used to working within the system. So, if you need advice or assistance, contact the Nisar Law Group, P.C. today.