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Court of Appeals Directs Reinstatement of Employee

The New York Court of Appeals has interpreted Civil Service Law section 71 as mandating reinstatement of an employee, previously terminated due to the inability to perform his duties resulting from a work related injury, once the county civil service office has certified the employee as fit to work. In Matter of Lazzari v Town of Eastchester, the Court held that upon receipt of a communication from the County Department of Human Relations that the employee had been examined and found fit for duty the employee must be reinstated. The Court found that if the municipality disagrees, it may commence an Article 78 proceeding against the County to challenge its determination, but may not deny reinstatement while it argues with the County.

Civil Service Law section 71 provides that where a municipal employee has been found unfit for work, due a to a work related incident, he/she may seek reinstatement through the County. In the event the County, by way of an independent examination, finds the employee fit for duty, the municipality must reinstate the County. In this case, the Town had the employee examined by two doctors who found the employee could not perform the functions of his position due to prior work related injuries. The employee sought reinstatement by the County which had him examined by a third physician. The County then advised the Town the employee was fit for duty. The Town requested a copy of the medical report and the County declined to provide it. The Town then refused to reinstate the employee based solely on the letter from the County unsupported by a copy of a medical certification. The Town also failed to either pursue a formal Freedom of Information request for the medical report or otherwise bring an action to challenge the determination.

In this action, brought by the employee for reinstatement, the Court concluded the Town “…does not have discretion regarding reinstatement determinations when a Civil Service Department, pursuant to Civil Service Law § 71, has determined that a medical official has certified that the employee is fit to return to work and orders reinstatement. Civil Service Law § 71 does not give the Town the responsibility or power to police the performance of the County’s statutorily mandated duties.”

The Court also ordered that the employee be given back pay.

In dissent, Judge Prigott expressed concern over the practical impact of this ruling:

“I dissent and decline the majority’s invitation to go “through the looking glass” to a world where a municipal employer must, in blind faith, reinstate an employee under Civil Service Law § 71 without first receiving a certification from a medical officer that the employee is fit for duty. The majority berates the parties for “squabb[ling] in and out of court,” (deservedly so), but, instead of interpreting § 71 in a manner that would lead to less litigation, it offers a solution that invites more by requiring a municipal employer to commence an article 78 proceeding against another municipality that should be assisting it to obtain the certification. Although § 71 does not state to whom the certification must be given, the only practical interpretation is that it should be given to the municipal employer, the entity ultimately responsible for the consequences of an imprudent reinstatement.”

-Steven Silverberg

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