Monday October 22, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- A custodian previously reinstated to his position at Hoosick Falls Central School received a lesser penalty and additional back pay after a second appeal.

Dennis James had worked at HFCS for some two decades before his termination in January following a disciplinary hearing at the school, prompted by a criminal investigation into a February 2010 domestic incident off school grounds. While James initially faced prosecution, those criminal charges were never pursued, and a New York Supreme Court ruling in March ordered that he be reinstated after the court found the dismissal to be "unduly disproportionate" to the alleged misconduct.

The school board returned James to work in April and modified the penalty to include 14 months without pay and one month and 12 days of back pay, covering the time between when James was initially removed from work before disciplinary procedures to the date he was finally reinstated.

Appealing that reduced penalty, lawyers for James commenced proceedings in May in Rensselaer County Supreme Court arguing the school board did not have authority to impose a 14-month suspension.

In a decision dated Sept. 18, the court agreed with the plaintiff that the penalty was not permissible and the school board had "no authority to depart from the provisions of Civil Service Law," which prescribe the permissible penalty that may be imposed -- in this case, suspension without pay for a period not exceeding two months.

In response to the appeal, attorneys for the school district argued that a precedent had been set by a number of appellate cases where penalties were imposed "in excess of or different from those defined" under law. The March court order reinstating James did not specify a lesser penalty or amount of owed back pay, only that he return to work.

The September court decision ruled that, "if a reviewing court does not state otherwise, the public employer's authority remains restricted by the statute," citing a case that says the court "must assume" the appellate division was cognizant of applicable civil service law at the time of its ruling.

On Thursday, the school board approved a resolution amending the penalty to two months suspension without pay, entitling James to additional back pay in the amount of $49,543.76, to be remitted within 14 days.

The resolution passed with no discussion along a 6-1 vote, with board member John Helft voting against the reduced penalty. James was not immediately available for comment.

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