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Wilson v. Department of Property Management

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

May 10, 2017

MELISSA WILSON
v.
DEPARTMENT OF PROPERTY MANAGEMENT

         APPEAL FROM CITY CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION ORLEANS NO. 8413, ""

          Dale E. Williams LAW OFFICE OF DALE EDWARD WILLIAMS COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE.

          Stephanie Dovalina ASSISTANT CITY ATTORNEY Adam J. Swensek CHIEF DEPUTY CITY ATTORNEY Cherrell S. Taplin SENIOR CHIEF DEPUTY CITY ATTORNEY Rebecca H. Dietz CITY ATTORNEY COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT.

          Court composed of Judge Edwin A. Lombard, Judge Rosemary Ledet, Judge Terrel J. Broussard, Pro Tempore.

          EDWIN A. LOMBARD, JUDGE

         The Appellant, the Department of Property Management for the City of New Orleans ("DPM"), seeks review of the decision of the Civil Service Commission ("Commission"), reversing the termination of the Appellee, Melissa Wilson. Finding that the DPM improperly terminated Ms. Wilson in accordance with the requirements of Civil Service Rule IX, we affirm the decision of the Commission.

         Facts

         Ms. Wilson, served as "Title Abstractor I" at the Department of Property Management for the City of New Orleans ("DPM") with permanent status. Ms. Wilson's primary duties consisted of processing work orders from various other City departments; she was the only person responsible for such task. Specifically, she entered information from work orders into a spreadsheet, time stamped them, then ensured the completion of the work orders. George Patterson, Director of the DPM, expressed that processing work orders is a vital task to the DPM because it is one of the department's Key Performance Indicators ("KPI").[1]

         In February 2015, Ms. Wilson ceased reporting to work. She later produced physician documentation indicating she would be receiving medical treatment and therefore, could not return to work until her treating physician reassessed her condition on March 30, 2015. Her treating physician submitted all appropriate paperwork for Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave. However, on March 30, 2015, Ms. Wilson failed to return to work. Instead, she produced a second physician's letter that expressed her inability to return to work until the completion of another medical reassessment on April 13, 2015. Again, Ms. Wilson failed to return to work on the date indicated in the letter. On April 14, 2015, Ms. Wilson produced a third physician's letter that extended her absentee period until April 28, 2015. The DPM honored all Ms. Wilson's requests for medical leave.

         In Ms. Wilson's absence, other employees of the DPM aided in processing the work orders; yet, a backlog ensued because they strained to process them. Mr. Patterson testified that this departmental strain became untenable in late April. Consequently, he sought approval from the Civil Service to hire a temporary replacement during Ms. Wilson's absence. Civil Service rejected his request because the payroll budget could only be accessed to hire Ms. Wilson's permanent replacement.

         On April 28, 2015, Ms. Wilson did not return to work. On May 5, 2015, the DPM notified Ms. Wilson that a pre-termination hearing would be held due to her inability to return to work. In the DPM's notification, it expressed that Ms. Wilson exhausted all her FMLA leave time and did not submit certification that she could return to work in any capacity from her medical provider.

         At the pre-termination hearing, Ms. Wilson produced another physician's letter, which permitted her return to work with the condition the DPM took precautions for any sudden loss of Ms. Wilson's balance. On May 15, 2015, the day after the hearing, the DPM terminated Ms. Wilson. Mr. Patterson stated he considered her to be a liability to both the City and his department. Ms. Wilson believed at the time of her termination she still possessed forty-nine (49) days of unused sick leave and nearly two weeks of annual leave.

         Ms. Wilson appealed her termination to the Commission, which granted her appeal. On review, the Commission first found that she could not perform the essential functions of her job as of May 15, 2015. Nonetheless, the Commission also ruled that the DPM improperly terminated Ms. Wilson when they did not first permit her to exhaust all her allocated sick and annual leave before her termination. The Commission specifically found that the DPM failed to meet its burden of proof that Ms. Wilson did not submit the proper documentation to justify her absence, permanent disability, or inability to resume her duties at the DPM. Subsequently, the Commission reinstated Ms. Wilson and required the DPM to pay her backpay and emoluments.

         The DPM timely filed the instant appeal in this Court, raising two (2) assignments of error:

1. The Commission committed legal error by augmenting the plain language of Civil Service Rule IX with additional unwritten requirements.
2. The Commission improperly substituted its judgment for the Appointing Authority's judgment.

         Standard of Review

         The Louisiana Constitution bestows the Commission the authority to modify, affirm or reverse all disciplinary actions. La. Const. art. X, § 12; Pope v. New Orleans Police Dep't., 04-1888, p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 4/20/05), 903 So.2d 1, 4. A permanent status employee in the classified city service must be terminated for good cause expressed in writing. La. Const. art. X, § 8(A); Walters v. Dep't of Police of New Orleans, 454 So.2d 106, 113 (La. 1984). A good cause for termination exists when the employee's conduct is detrimental to the efficient operation of the public service. Laviolette v. Dep't. of Police, 16-0095, pp. 5-6 (La.App. 4 Cir. 8/24/16), 200 So.3d 962, 966 (citing Walters, 454 So.2d at 113). The Appointing Authority must prove a legal cause exist to the Commission. Muhammad v. New Orleans Police Dep't, 00-1034, pp. 4-5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 7/11/01), 791 So.2d 788, 791 (citing Wilson v. New Orleans Aviation Board, 96-1350, p. 2 (La.App. 4 Cir. 1/15/97), 687 So.2d 593, 595). "Legal cause exists when the employee's conduct impairs the efficiency of the public service in which the employee is engaged." Id., 00-1034, p.7, 791 So.2d at 792 (citing Cittadino v. Department of Police, 558 So.2d 1311 (La.App. 4 Cir. 1990)). The Appointing Authority must also prove the "actions complained of bear a real and substantial relationship to the efficient operation of the public service." Id. (citing Neff v. City Planning Comm'n, 95-2324 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/11/96), 681 So.2d 6). Both requirements must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.

         This Court must review the Commission's finding of facts pursuant to the clearly wrong or manifest error standard. Id., 00-1034, pp. 4-5, 791 So.2d at 790-791; see also Vara v. Dep't of Police, 16-0036, p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 6/29/16), 197 So.3d 294, 297. The Commission's conclusion of "whether the disciplinary action is based on legal cause and the punishment is commensurate with the infraction" should be reviewed determining whether the finding is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion. Id. The Commission's conclusion is arbitrary or capricious if it lacks a rational basis. Bannister v. Dep't. of Streets, 95-404 (La. 1/16/96), 666 So.2d 641. Therefore, this Court shall only modify the Commission's reinstatement of Ms. Wilson if there is no rational basis for the Commission's ruling.

         The Commission's alleged violation of Civil Service Rule IX

         In the first assignment of error, the DPM argues that the Commission's order to reinstate Ms. Wilson violated Civil Service Rule IX, Section 1.1, because it created an additional requirement to terminate employees under Rule IX. Specifically, the DPM argues that the Commission misinterpreted Rule IX because Rule IX does not require a department to await an employee's exhaustion of her accrued sick and/or annual leave before terminating an employee. Civil Service Rule IX, Section 1.1, provides the following:

When an employee in the classified service is unable or unwilling to perform the duties of his/her position in a satisfactory manner, or has committed any act to the prejudice of the service, or has omitted to perform any act it was his/her duty to perform, or otherwise has become subject to corrective action, the appointing authority shall take action warranted by the circumstances to ...

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