The Colorado Supreme Court will consider how discipline should be handled for thousands of state employees Wednesday as it hears the case of a Department of Corrections employee who was fired for his one-time, off-duty use of marijuana, then reinstated by the State Personnel Board.
The board, which both establishes rules for state employers and works to ensure the rules are being followed, is the first stop for about 30,000 state employees to appeal disciplinary decisions.
The Department of Corrections argues the board overstepped its authority when it overturned the employee’s firing, with attorneys saying the board must give deference to state agencies — in this case the prison warden — when considering whether the discipline dished out by those agencies is appropriate. The board can only overturn initial discipline decisions under a narrow set of circumstances weighted to favor the agencies, the attorneys argue.
Lawyers for the State Personnel Board argue it is not required to give deference to agencies’ decisions, and say the board must independently review the facts of a case when considering an employee’s appeal.
Denise DeForest, a former administrative law judge and now instructor at the University of Colorado Law School, said the Department of Corrections’ position could undercut important protections for state employees. She filed a third-party brief in the case in support of the State Personnel Board.
“When parties appear in front of the board, they’re parties,” she said. “It’s like every other court. You walk in at an equal level with the other side. The whole point of a hearing is to do it in a fair manner. And what the agencies seem to want, although they’ve not been very clear about this, is they don’t want to hold a hearing. They don’t want to walk in there and have to put up a case. They want to say, ‘Well you just need to check and see that we tell you we have the evidence.’ And that’s it. And there are a lot of problems like that.”
But attorneys for the Department of Corrections say the board will wield too much power if it is not required to give deference to agencies’ discipline decisions.
“The decision… concentrates power over 30,000 state classified employees with the board. It has far-reaching consequences for state agencies’ ability to run their organizations that the legislature never intended, and injects unnecessary uncertainty into decisions made by appointing authorities following their policies,” senior assistant attorney general Katherine Aidala wrote in a court brief.
But DeForest said a ruling in favor of the Department of Corrections — and in favor of a slew of other state agencies ranging from the Department of Education to the Department of Public Safety — would cripple an important check on the power of state agencies over their employees. The board relies on appeals from employees to identify when state agencies violate personnel rules, she said.
“You can’t be a watchdog if nobody will file an appeal because an appeal is just a rubber stamp,” she said.
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the pending case, which began in 2015, when Matthew Stiles, who then worked as a boiler operator at a state prison, was abruptly fired after a testing positive for marijuana in a random drug test.
Stiles — who had been dealing with a series of stressful life circumstances — told his bosses he’d taken some of his spouse’s medical marijuana to help him sleep on a Friday night before reporting back to work the following Monday. The warden fired Stiles for violating the Department of Corrections’ policy prohibiting drug use, which included marijuana even though its recreational use is legal in Colorado.
Stiles appealed the firing, and it was overturned by the State Personnel Board, which found the warden’s discipline to be too severe and reduced it to a six-month 10% pay reduction, according to court filings.
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