In a decision issued October 25, 2012, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed and extended one its most significant rulings in the recent past relative to public sector disciplinary proceedings for police officers.
That earlier ruling, in Matter of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn. of City of N.Y., Inc. v. New York State Pub. Empl. Relations Bd., 6 N.Y.3d 563 (2006), held “that police discipline may not be a subject of collective bargaining under the Taylor Law when the Legislature has expressly committed disciplinary authority over a police department to local officials.” Id. at 570.
The court’s October 25, 2012 ruling, involving the Town of Walkill v. Town of Walkill Police Officers’ Benevolent Association, et. al., App. No. 180 (N.Y. Court of Appeals October 25, 2012), further clarifies powers available to public sector employers, including towns and other municipalities, with regard to discipline involving police officers in New York State.
Since 1995, the Town of Walkill has had a collective bargaining agreement in place which, among other things, addressed the matter of discipline for police officers. For example, the collective bargaining agreement provided that officers subject to discipline had a right to arbitration before a neutral arbitrator. In 2007, in accordance with its powers under Town Law Section 155, the town adopted a local law which set forth different disciplinary procedures than those contained in the collective bargaining agreement. Rather than arbitration before a neutral arbitrator, the town required that a member or designee of the Town Board conduct the hearing and issue a decision with a recommended penalty.
The police officers’ union challenged the town’s local law and the change in contractual procedure.
The Court of Appeals concluded that its decision in Matter of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, supra, was dispositive to the Walkill appeal. The court found that police discipline is a “prohibited subject of bargaining” in this case as the town “properly exercised its authority to adopt Local Law No. 2 pursuant to Town Law § 155.”
Since Town Law Section 155 is a general law enacted prior to Civil Service Law Sections 75 and 76, which provisions generally address public sector employee discipline, the town retained the power and authority “to adopt and make rules and regulations for the examination, hearing, investigation and determination of charges” against any member of such a police department, even though the Local Law at issue was enacted in 2007.
With this decision, the court now makes clear that if a municipal employer possesses a source of right for police discipline which predates section 75 and 76 of the Civil Service Law, even if a later collective bargaining agreement established terms related to police discipline, such an employer may still rely on that earlier source of right to establish regulations and procedures for the hearing and determination of disciplinary charges of police officers.
This case should represent a substantial advancement for police agencies seeking to avoid what is often a costly, cumbersome, and time-consuming process to discipline sworn employees from minor to major offenses. As a mechanism to regain management discretion, we highly recommend that public sector employers evaluate what options they may have in discipline following this decision.
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