State Court Rules that NYC Was Entitled by Statute to Terminate Employee…But Termination Might Have Been Wrongful Nonetheless

On June 23, 2014, Justice Hunter of the New York State Supreme Court issued a judgment and order in the Vanacore v. City of New York and New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). In that case, petitioner Ralph Vanacore alleges that he was wrongfully terminated and seeks a judgment vacating ACS’s decision to terminate his employment and reinstating him to his position with back pay and benefits. His other request, which is more at issue in the present Court order, is that ACS reimburse him for all medical expenses he incurred as a result of being wrongfully terminated.

Prior to his termination, Vanacore had worked for ACS as a caseworker for over twenty years. He then suffered a job-related injury in April of 2012, after which he took approved medical leave. While on leave, he received a letter dated March 11, 2013 which indicated that he must “resolve his employment status.” To that end he was presented with several options: first, he could return to work with a doctor’s statement saying he was able to work, either with or without restrictions; second, if he could not return to work, he could file for social security or some other benefits; third, he could resign; or fourth, if he chose none of these first three options, he would be terminated. The letter referred to Section 71 of the Civil Services Law, which states that “…an employee who has been continuously or cumulatively due to a work-related injury absent for one year or more, may be separated from staff.”

Mr. Vanacore had been on worker’s compensation leave for almost one year when he received the letter. He then returned to work on April 15, 2013, and provided a doctor’s note saying he could work, but soon after returning he started another medical leave due to the same work-related injury. On June 24 he was again admitted to the hospital, where he stayed for two days. The next day, on June 25, the hospital informed him that he no longer had insurance coverage through his employer and would be responsible for paying all of his medical expenses himself. Only then did he learn that the City had, unbeknownst to him, terminated his employment effective June 14, 2013.

On August 5, 2013, Vanacore finally received a letter from ACS informing him of his termination effective June 14, 2013. The letter was dated June 14, but had not been mailed until (at the earliest) late July. He learned of his termination almost two months after it was executed, and as a result, he argues, he was denied several “due process rights.” By not informing him of his termination when it happened, Vanacore claims, ACS denied his right to apply for retirement benefits, which would have included medical coverage, or to apply for COBRA. Moreover, petitioner Vanacore argues and the Court agreed, that Section 71 of the Civil Service Law, as previously interpreted by other courts, specifies that any employee who is terminated must i) receive pretermination notice, and, prior to termination, ii) “some minimal opportunity to be heard” regarding the duration of their absence and/or their ability to return to work.

Against all of these accusations, ACS effectively brought one response: that the March 11 letter notified Mr. Vanacore of his termination. But that letter only said that under the Civil Service Law he could be terminated, not that he actually would be terminated at some specific future time. Also, because the letter arrived long after his termination became effective, Vanacore received neither his due process right to be heard regarding his medical status nor his right to apply for post-employment benefits to which he would have been entitled.

Reinstatement to his job might be too much to hope for, but as of now the Court seems poised to award him at least his medical expenses.

If you are an employee and you believe your rights have been violated, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.