ANNAPOLIS -- In its haste to save money by laying off state employees, the Schaefer administration improperly ignored the seniority rights of fired employees, state administrative law judges have concluded in a series of opinions.
The rulings, issued in individual and group employee grievance cases, are likely to be appealed by the state to the circuit courts and ultimately by one side or the other to Maryland's highest court.
But the state could be forced to rehire some of the fired employees, grant them reinstatement rights if their old jobs no longer exist, and award them thousands of dollars in back pay.
The state could be forced to lay off other employees -- those who, it is argued, should have been "bumped" from their jobs initially under seniority rights guaranteed in state law.
"The number of individuals involved, the money involved and the specific rejection of two opinions by the attorney general make this a truly significant holding," said Stephen Awalt, counsel to the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a state employee union.
Mr. Awalt referred to a ruling in late February upholding the seniority rights of 100 state employees fired from 14 state agencies and departments. "I expect the state's lawyers to appeal," he said.
Those seniority rights accrue to employees based on their number of months of state service, their number of months in the department where layoffs are going to occur, and their length of time in a particular job classification.
Employees get points in each category and those with the most points can bump those in the similar positions but with fewer points.
Based on two legal opinions from Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Schaefer administration decided it could ignore those seniority rights as it eliminated government jobs to help eliminate budget shortfalls.
Marlene Trestman, an assistant attorney general who has represented the state in the employee grievance cases before the Office of Administrative Hearings, said the state still stands behind Mr. Curran's opinions. But she said some of the administrative law rulings are so new that no decision has been made whether to appeal them.
Because the grievance cases are in different steps of the process, it was unclear precisely how many employees could be affected, although it appears the number is fewer than 200. Employees who did not file grievances within 30 days of their firing apparently have lost their right to do so now.
William Bolander, executive director of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called the rulings "a big victory" for state employees. Mr. Bolander acknowledged that other employees ultimately may be bumped from their jobs.
Administrative Law Judge Susan L. Officer, in a case decided Friday involving five employees fired from the state's Department of Licensing and Regulation, drew a distinction between employees fired after their job was "clearly and unmistakeably" identified for elimination from the budget and those who were fired at the discretion of a state agency as part of a broader, unspecified effort to trim spending.
In one case, the judge concluded an employee whose job had been specifically singled out was properly terminated. But in the other four cases, she said, seniority rights should have been observed.
The employees should be reinstated and awarded all back pay, less any retirement, Social Security or unemployment benefits they may have received, she added.