Civil Service Commission Addresses Truthfulness Standard in Bypasses

On April 12, 2018, the Civil Service Commission (“Commission”) released a decision, Dabene v. Boston Police Department, in which it opined on the requisite level of untruthfulness to substantiate bypass of a candidate for a police officer position.  It is well-established in decisions under the Civil Service Law, G.L. c. 71, that honesty is a necessary trait for individuals who are, or are seeking to become, a police officer.  In this case, the municipal employer bypassed a candidate for original appointment to the position of police officer based on concern that he previously provided untruthful information in his application.  The  bypass was appealed to the Commission.

In a 2015 job application with the Massachusetts State Police, there was a question posed to applicants whether they were proficient in any languages besides English; the candidate did not answer as being proficient in any such languages.  In a 2016 job application with the municipal employer, there was a question posed to applicants whether they had a basic knowledge of any languages besides English; the candidate indicated that he had a basic knowledge of both the Spanish and Italian languages after studying them in high school and college.  He then completed an application for a police officer position with the employer in 2017, where he did not answer that he had a basic knowledge of any languages other than English.  When the employer inquired why he had listed himself as having a basic knowledge of two languages in his 2016 application but not in his 2017 application, the candidate wrote that “[although I had taken classes in the past, it is clear that I have lost much of my proficiency in these languages…I did not list these languages, as I am now aware that I am not as proficient as I once was.”

In reviewing the bypass, the Commission noted that labeling candidates as untruthful “can be an inherently subjective determination that should be made only after a thorough, serious and uniform review that is mindful of the career-ending consequences that such a conclusion has on candidates seeking a career in public safety.” Here, while the candidate had received satisfactory grades in his Spanish and Italian courses, the employer relied on the fact he had listed himself as “proficient” in those languages on his State Police application but did not list himself as having a “basic knowledge” in his latest application with it.  The Commission determined this question to be highly subjective because the application provided no guidance as to what constituted “basic knowledge” and left its meaning up to interpretation.  Thus, the Commission found that the employer had not proven that the candidate was untruthful in his application and invalidated the bypass.

This case serves as important guidance for public employers in assessing and bypassing job candidates. Employers should ensure that application questions are clear and objective, and offer direction when necessary.  Additionally, when reviewing inconsistencies between application responses and background investigations, employers should be careful to determine whether a candidate may have had a genuine misunderstanding or was untruthful.  This is especially important because past decisions have generally deferred to the employer’s judgment in requiring that candidates for original appointment or promotion as police officers be found scrupulously honest.  This decision shows that the Commission will scrutinize those determinations in a bypass case.

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This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.