The Band Plays On: Civil Service Commission Abdicates Oversight Role To Human Resources Division – Refuses To Investigate Decision To “Band” Promotional Test Scores
The Civil Service Commission today rejected appeals filed by Sandulli Grace on behalf of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (and companion cases filed by the Boston Superior Officers and IBPO) challenging the Human Resource Division’s decision to start “banding” scores from civil service promotional exams when placed on eligibility lists. Specifically, the Commission rejected the straightforward argument that HRD violated its own rule requiring that exam scores be listed “in whole numbers.” Instead, Civil Service decided that scores expressed in bands, each containing up to 8 points, are in “whole numbers” because the bands are numbered 1 through 7. When the HRD attorney made this ridiculous argument in the civil service hearing room, members of the crowd, including one sitting commissioner, audibly laughed. Now, apparently, it is the law, contradicting the old adage that an argument should first have to “pass the laugh test.”
In one decision the Commission ruled that individual offers are not “aggrieved” because they have not suffered “actual harm” – YET! Reading Chapter 31 (Civil Service law) to only remedy past wrongs, the Commission ruled that since no one has been yet harmed by banding, the appeals are untimely. Of course, it was our hope and desire to AVOID a situation where individuals are promoted based on banding only to have those promotions undone through an after the fact appeal. (Indeed, Counsel to HRD, while claiming that our appeal was not ripe, simultaneously argued that the Commission could not go back and undo initial hiring decisions already made because of the chaos that would result.) Unfortunately, the Commission punted rather than take the issue on headfirst.
In the second decision on our request for an investigation (as opposed to an appeal), the Commission rejected our argument that HRD had violated its own rule. Although our request only sought to require HRD to follow proper rulemaking regarding banding, the Commission nonetheless wrote a lengthy exegesis on how terrific banding really is, citing law review articles and unrelated dicta in federal civil rights cases. Amazingly, the Commission quoted Massachusetts Federal Judge Saris, who opined in a decision that “banding … seems consistent with” civil service. This is amazing because Judge Saris noted in the same case that “the attorneys have not briefed the issue,” and that “HRD has expressed some legal uncertainty as to whether the statutory framework in Massachusetts allows banding.” Without a hearing, rulemaking, or any other legal proceeding, HRD has now gone from questioning the legality of banding to making it the law of the land.
As to WHY HRD’s decision to band scores does NOT violate the “whole number rule,” the Commission held that bands “are whole numbers.” By this logic, HRD could follow its “whole number” rule by scoring exams 1-100, 1-7 (as in banding), or 1-10,000 (as it did when it used to break down scores to the hundredth of a point). In other words, the rule has no meaning. This would be comic were it not for its effect on the careers of literally thousands of police officers who arduously studied, sacrificing earnings and time with their families, expecting their efforts to be scored by the rules.
A stern dissent by two of the five Commissioners (Henderson and Taylor) pointed to the time and effort put in by test-takers with the expectation that their tests would be scored as they have been in the past: in whole numbers of 1-100. They disagreed with the majority and would order the relief requested by our clients:
That the Commission order HRD to comply with its present rules and establish eligible lists from the October 2008 police promotional examinations in whole numbers and not utilize banding or any other method.
To the extent that HRD desires to amend PAR. 07 (4)[the “whole number” rule], the Commission should then order that no such amendment become effective unless and until HRD complies with the statutory requirements of G.L. c. 31, §§ 3 and 4.
Like the indulgent parent admonishing the wayward teenager taking the family Mercedes out for a spin to “be careful,” the Commission wagged a finger at HRD that, because of the enormous new power it was conferring on appointing authorities, it had better “embark forthwith on an inclusive, transparent selection process to ensure effective implementation by municipalities of post-banding selection procedures.” That was what the Legislature created under the statutory “2N +1 Rule,” until HRD and Civil Service saw fit to destroy it. But we need not worry, because the decision tells us that the Commission “will not stand idly by if presented with competent evidence that unlawful favoritism was the driving force behind a particular promotional appointment.” This gives little comfort as we have watched Civil Service stand idly by while HRD makes up its own rules and the agency abrogates its statutory oversight role.
The role of the Civil Service Commission as a watchdog against favoritism and overreaching by HRD is called into question when Civil Service refuses to demand that HRD conduct rulemaking in the open – AS IT IS REQUIRED TO DO.
Needless to say, we are reviewing our options with our clients. Stay tuned…