Not Every Dismissal Of A Police Officer Is Punitive

Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights provides that if “an investigation or interrogation of a law enforcement officer results in a recommendation of an action that is considered punitive, the law enforcement officer is entitled to a hearing on the issues by a hearing board before the law enforcement agency takes that action.” The question of what amounts to “punitive” action triggering the Bill of Rights was the focus of a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

The case involved Jason Thomas, a police officer with the Annapolis Police Department (APD). Thomas sustained an injury in the line of duty that required surgery on his left knee. Thomas then applied for disability retirement through the Annapolis Department of Human Resources, which the City denied, and Thomas appealed. Over a year later, Thomas transitioned from light-duty to full-duty police work. Thomas served only a few hours, however, before reporting that he had reinjured his knee while entering his squad car, and APD again placed him on light duty.

APD management held a conference call in which they discussed Thomas’s status, including the fact that independent medical examinations revealed that he could perform full-duty police work. Regardless, APD offered Thomas a position as a Police Records Specialist, a full-time clerical position at a lower pay grade, which Thomas declined. APD then sent Thomas home on unpaid administrative leave pending the results of his disability retirement appeal.

Thomas remained on unpaid leave while his appeal proceeded, during which time he made no efforts to contact or communicate with APD regarding his work status. Ultimately, the Public Safety Disability Retirement Board of the City of Annapolis affirmed the denial of Thomas’s application for disability retirement. Thomas again made no efforts to contact APD to discuss returning to work. After several months with no contact, the Chief of APD terminated Thomas, explaining that Thomas’s “unwillingness to return to work as a police officer under these circumstances constitutes unsatisfactory work performance and warrants termination.”

Thomas argued that his termination was “punitive” within the scope of the Bill of Rights, and that he should have received a hearing before the decision was made. Thomas also contended that he was subjected to an “interrogation” when APD asked him whether and when he could return to work.

The Court disagreed with Thomas and upheld his termination. The Court found that “routine or periodic evaluations of an officer’s work performance do not amount to an investigation under the Bill of Rights, even when an officer’s performance is compared to that of his colleagues. Any inquiry into Thomas’s medical status to determine whether he could return to work full duty by APD was conducted as part of routine, departmental practice, and did not amount to an investigation or interrogation under the Bill of Rights. First, while APD discussed Thomas’s light-duty status and assessed his physical recovery, this evaluation was conducted as part of a routine review, wherein APD discussed every officer on medical leave or light duty at that time. Second, while APD relied on medical reports generated from Thomas’s disability application, APD played no role in the official review or determination of Thomas’s eligibility. Because APD’s review of Thomas’s medical and work status was routine and managerial, it does not constitute an investigation or interrogation under the Bill of Rights.

“Even if we were to conclude that APD conducted an investigation of Thomas, we are not persuaded that Thomas’s dismissal from APD, in itself, constitutes a punitive action. Thomas contends that by permanently dismissing him, APD penalized Thomas for breaking departmental rules – namely, the failure to return to work as ordered – and therefore that action was punitive in nature. He further argues that the Bill of Right’s procedural safeguards exist to protect law enforcement officers from all dismissals, and he therefore deserved a hearing prior to his termination. We disagree.

“Not every dismissal of a police officer is punitive. The Bill of Rights affords broad discretion to the police chief to regulate the competent and efficient operation and management of a law enforcement agency by any reasonable means so long as that action is not punitive in nature and the chief determines that action to be in the best interests of the internal management of the law enforcement agency. When officers fail to meet the expectations of their position or demonstrate continued unsatisfactory performance, the Bill of Rights does not limit the chief’s authority to make personnel adjustments, including termination when that will best serve the Department. Dismissals under those circumstances are not punitive. Here, APD’s decision to dismiss Thomas was not punitive because it fell squarely within the Chief’s discretion to take personnel action to address an officer’s subpar attendance and thus to promote the efficient operation of the Department.”

Thomas v. Pristoop, 2017 WL 5256325 (Md. Spec. App. 2017).