In a ruling that paves the way for unconditional reinstatement of fired state prison correctional officers, the state's highest court ruled this week that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services took too long to investigate and discipline three guards.
"It's a question of what is fundamentally fair," said Joel A. Smith, a partner in the law firm that represented two of the officers. "The law characteristically adopts time limitations. This is one of them."
Two of the three officers were fired - one had used a racial epithet, the other had reported a set of master keys missing on his watch. The third officer was reprimanded for instigating an investigation of a co-worker that was deemed unwarranted.
The Court of Appeals said that 1996 state personnel laws give agencies 30 days from the time officials are notified of alleged misconduct to investigate and begin imposition of disciplinary action. But the agency took about two months to complete two of these cases and about four months on the other.
The court rejected the agency's contention that the 30-day timetable started after the probe was over.
An agency spokesman said officials had not fully reviewed the ruling and could not comment.
The three disciplinary actions, which each occurred in 1997, were challenged by the Maryland Classified Employees Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represent most unionized state workers.
The ruling resolves conflicting outcomes in the lower courts. Circuit courts in Washington and Somerset counties had ruled for the state; the court in Allegany County ruled for the employee, who was conditionally reinstated during the appeal.
"This affects a lot of people," said Lisa O'Mara, lawyer for one of the officers. "This removes all doubts from their minds. When an allegation is made against them, they know the matter will be resolved within 30 days."