CONCORD – The state Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of Karen Hildreth, a former Health and Human Services employee, who was seeking to continue her appeal of disciplinary action.
The state had denied her efforts to go before the Personnel Appeals Board (PAB) because she retired while in the process of appealing two letters of warning, including one that withheld her annual salary increment. The court found that the PAB wrongly concluded that in retiring and voluntarily giving up her status as a “permanent employee” she also gave up her right of appeal.
This decision ensures that Hildreth’s appeal will be heard. But beyond Hildreth, the case also has wide-reaching implications, ensuring that others who find themselves in a similar situation won’t lose their right to appeal because they are no longer a permanent employee. You can read the ruling in its entirety here.
Hildreth, who spent more than 30 years in state service, said she disagreed with her supervisor’s disciplinary actions, but resigned in the process of appeals because the work situation was affecting her health. She had no inkling that in leaving, she might lose her right to be heard.
“I didn’t just walk way,” Hildreth said. “I was taking a stand and didn’t anticipate that in taking a stand I’d forfeit my right to be heard.”
The case not only affects Hildreth – who was financially affected by the withholding of the salary increment – but others as well because the court ruled the petitioner had to be a permanent employee at the time of the discipline, not at the time of the appeal. Hildreth recognized this impact.
“It’s not just me, it impacts everybody who’s a permanent worker,” she said. “You stay there and you get tenure and you get certain rights … this is saying ‘I don’t lose the right to continue my hearings because I leave state service.’ “
Kristen Sheppe, an attorney for the SEA who made oral arguments before the high court, said the court’s decision adds accountability to the disciplinary process.
“Now, as it should be, the state is going to have to defend the disciplinary actions it takes,” she said. “And workers won’t be left without a remedy, because this discipline affects them down the road, even after they’ve left state service.”
“It’s always hard to say exactly how they’ll interpret it down the road, but this is a broad decision which basically agrees with our position: If you receive discipline when you’re a permanent employee, you’re going to be able to have your case heard,” Sheppe said.
Mike Reynolds, the general counsel for the SEA, said the ruling keeps such disciplinary decisions above board.
“It prevents management from engaging in chicanery or mischief where they can discipline you in bad faith,” Reynolds said.
The decision guarantees that decisions will be made on the merits of the case, not based on the whims of one particular person. This merit system, Reynolds said, “gives the employees protection, it gives the public protection, and this decision just clarifies what the rules are.”
Hildreth’s appeal with the PAB should be scheduled soon, but until then, she said she was happy with the court’s decision.
“I was asking them to afford me the right to be heard,” Hildreth said. “The important thing is, justice prevailed.”