What are “civil service” laws and can they help me?

The civil service includes a broad range of employees of local, county, state, and federal government entities. In Ohio, the civil service also includes a number of employees of colleges and universities operated by the state.

Laws are on the books to protect civil service employees against unfair or unreasonable employment practices that they otherwise might face because they usually work in offices managed by politicians who sometimes lose their own jobs at election time. Workers in the civil service are protected by laws guaranteeing merit selection in the hiring process and prevent the winner of an election from harassing individuals on their predecessor’s staff or firing them just so the politician can give jobs to his or her own friends or supporters.

Not all government workers are protected under civil service laws. The law recognizes election winners must have some discretion when filling certain high-level and policy-making positions in government. When it comes to such appointments, civil service laws generally exempt management from the obligation to provide the same merit selection guarantees and job security extended to middle management personnel and rank-and-file workers.

Government employees working under a union contract typically enjoy job security benefits only through the terms of the contract negotiated on their behalf by their union leaders. However, some municipalities in Ohio allow their unionized work force the option of electing to pursue grievances against management under the terms of their union contract or under the city’s civil service laws, but not both.

Workers in the civil service of the State of Ohio are protected by Chapter 124 of the Ohio Revised Code and regulations found in Part 124 of the Ohio Administrative Code. Local and county workers in Ohio are protected either by other state laws and regulations or by local rules adopted by the legislative authority responsible for the government entity for which the civil service employee works.

If a civil service worker thinks their rights have been violated, recourse is available before administrative agencies and in the courts. State employees, including employees of state colleges and universities, and employees of counties and municipalities not organized under the charter form of government, can take an appeal from most adverse job actions to the State Personnel Board of Review in Columbus. All other civil service workers must pursue their appeals before local civil service commissions or other administrative agencies specifically set up to handle such actions.

An appeal should be treated as if it were a lawsuit as the parties must present evidence through witnesses, can be required to prepare briefs and other written materials in support of their positions, can subpoena witnesses and documents, and can frequently engage in pre-hearing motion practice as well as discovery in the form of depositions and written discovery requests. The agency responsible for handling the appeal will consider only the evidence actually presented in the record of the proceedings and will not make a decision based on extraneous evidence.

While a civil service employee can handle their own appeal, it is generally a good idea to consult a civil service attorney who practices regularly in this area of the law.

Time limits for bringing a civil service case can vary from municipality to municipality, but a civil service employee allowed to invoke the jurisdiction of the State Personnel Board of Review customarily must initiate an appeal in writing and deliver that appeal to the board and agency from which the appeal is taken within ten days of the date of the final decision of that agency. Failure to file an appeal in the proper manner and with all appropriate agencies will result in losing the right to appeal.

As the right to continued employment in the public sector is considered a property right entitled to protection under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution, an employer cannot take an adverse job action against a civil service employee unless it first outlines the claims or charges against the employee with enough detail so that the employee can understand them. The employer then gives the employee notice of a meeting specifically designed to give the employee a chance to explain their actions or to challenge the validity of the claims or charges asserted by management. Any evidence or arguments advanced by the employee during this meeting must be taken into account by management before rendering a final decision in writing, and they must make sure the decision gets into the hands of the employee or their attorney.

An employee has the right to engage a civil service lawyer to assist in the meeting.

If the civil service employee does not like the decision, Ohio law allows just 30 days to take an appeal of that final decision to the Court of Common Pleas having jurisdiction over the civil service appeal. This process is fairly technical, and failure to perfect the appeal in the manner specifically provided by statutes and court decisions will result in the dismissal of the appeal to court.

In reviewing a civil service appeal, a court will review only the record of the civil service proceedings and will overturn the decision only if the agency improperly interpreted or applied the law, acted arbitrarily in rendering its decision, violated the rights of one of the parties in conducting the appeal proceedings, or failed to base its decision on “substantial, reliable, and probative evidence” actually appearing in the record.  

Only in rare instances will a court allow the employee to present new evidence in the appeal when such evidence could have been presented to the administrative agency in the first instance.