Termination For On-Duty Drinking ‘Shocks Sense Of Fairness’

Public safety disciplinary cases appealed by employees into New York’s court system have very tough sledding. Under New York Law, disciplinary penalties can only be overturned if the employee can show that the “measure of punishment or discipline imposed is so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.”

Given this highly deferential standard, it was surprising to see a court overturn the termination of Carleton Peterson, a police officer for the City of Poughkeepsie. Peterson was fired for drinking while on duty and submitting a false time card regarding his activities during his lunch break.

The Court’s analysis was fairly sparse: “A review of the hearing transcript indicates that Peterson admitted to consuming alcohol during his work hours. Additionally, the transcript further supports the finding that Peterson failed to perform work during work hours and falsely reported his work hours, in that he exceeded his thirty (30) minute lunch break without so indicating upon his time card.

“The facts of this matter, while serious, do not fit the penalty of termination. On Thursday December 24, 2009, while working his shift from 7:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Peterson was observed at an establishment known as Andy’s Place consuming a beer and a shot of liquor from approximately 1:40 p.m. until 2:40 p.m., at which point Peterson returned to work. This one-hour time frame has now cost Peterson his job and his benefits associated with the position.

“While this Court recognizes that the Peterson committed a serious infraction, the penalty of termination of his employment is so disproportionate to the offense committed as be shocking to one’s sense of fairness. There is simply no evidence before this Court that Peterson during his 19 years of employment had presented a disciplinary problem or that the incident was anything but isolated. Accordingly, this matter is remitted to the City for the imposition of a lesser penalty.”

Peterson v. City of Poughkeepsie, 2013 WL 4080745 (Sup. 2013).