The Public Service Commission (PSC) does not have the jurisdiction to withhold a portion of a public officer’s salary while they are suspended pending the determination of disciplinary charges against them.
Delivering a judgment on Monday, High Court Judge Carol Gobin upheld a novel constitutional case brought by prison officer Caramchand Sammy.
According to the evidence in the case, in September 2018, the PSC brought three charges of discreditable conduct against Sammy, who was then assigned to the infirmary at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca.
The charges stemmed from an incident in 2017 in which Sammy used his cellphone to take photographs of a prisoner who was stabbed by another inmate and shared the images on a group chat with colleagues, who were also assigned to the infirmary.
Sammy was suspended and the PSC decided to withhold one-quarter of his salary pending the outcome of the disciplinary process.
Sammy eventually pleaded guilty to the charges and was subsequently found guilty of them.
He was fined two months’ salary for two of the charges and was dismissed from the Prison Service on the third.
In March 2020, the Public Service Appeal Board (PSAB) overturned the PSC’s decision on the penalties imposed on Sammy.
Sammy was instead reprimanded and discharged on the first two charges and fined $5,000 for the third.
He filed the lawsuit after the PSC refused to restore the portion of his salary that was withheld during his suspension after he was eventually reinstated.
In defence of the case, the PSC contended that its power to withhold a portion of Sammy’s salary fell under Regulation 89(3) of the PSC’s Regulations. It also contended that under Regulation 89(4), Sammy was only entitled to reimbursement if he was exonerated on appeal and it (the PSC) had the discretion to decide if he was not cleared of all wrongdoing.
In deciding the case, Justice Gobin had to consider the effect of Section 129(4) of the Constitution on the regulations. The segment of the Constitution precludes the PSC from imposing penalties on public officers before the conclusion of the disciplinary process.
Justice Gobin noted that the regulations would have been valid under the 1962 Constitution as the Section 129(4) provision was only introduced when it (the Constitution) was amended when T&T became a republic in 1976.
As a secondary issue, Justice Gobin had to consider whether the PSC had the jurisdiction under Regulation 89(4) to decide whether Sammy should be given his withheld salary after his successful appeal.
Justice Gobin ruled that the PSC could not weigh in on the issue after it was considered by the PSAB.
In her judgment, Justice Gobin issued a series of declarations over the regulations.
She also ordered that Sammy be paid the salary emoluments that were wrongly withheld during his suspension between December 2018 and October 2020, plus interest.
Sammy was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Renuka Rambhajan, and Natasha Bisram.
The PSC and the Office of the Attorney General were represented by Nadine Nabbie, Jinai Chong Sing, Chelvi Ramkissoon, and Michelle Benjamin.