Thursday, June 16, 2016

Right to Equity and Uniformity In Discipline

In a significant rebuke to the Civil Service Commission, a Judge of the Superior Court reversed the termination of a police officer fired by the Town of West Bridgewater for lying because the Commission failed to consider the issue of favoritism raised by the terminated officer. Read the Superior Court decision here. The decision is significant because it means that even though the officer’s conduct on its own may have warranted termination, the Commission was required to consider whether the Town exhibited favoritism in how it treated this officer’s misconduct compared to how it treated other officers who committed similar misconduct.  This is referred to as an employee’s right to equity and uniformity in discipline, and this is a right that a court can enforce if the Commission fails to.

The Superior Court’s decision confirms that well-established rule that, along with the power to independently find facts, the Commission has the power to modify a discipline. That means that even if the Commission decides that an employee’s conduct warrants discipline, the Commission is not required to rubber stamp the discipline issued; it has the power to change it or reduce it. One of the most common reasons that the Commission modifies a discipline is because the appointing authority failed to treat similarly situated individuals with similar discipline.

In Desmond v. West Bridgewater, the Commission found that Officer Desmond exhibited a pattern of untruthfulness and upheld the Town’s decision to terminate. You can read the underlying Commission decision here. However, on appeal the Superior Court overturned the termination and ordered the Commission to look at the matter again. The Superior Court pointed out that Desmond presented evidence that another officer had lied, and in circumstances “much worse” than Desmond’s.  Although the Superior Court affirmed that Desmond should be disciplined, the Court held that the lack of uniformity between similarly situated individuals required the termination be vacated. The Court recognized that a lack of uniformity could indicate favoritism and bias, which violates civil service law. If you have been disciplined more harshly than others in your situation, you may be able to get your discipline reduced by appealing to the Civil Service Commission. But you have to act quickly: within ten days of the final disciplinary letter. For more information, contact our office.

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