November 28
2021
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Emilija Berzanskaite
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22nd October 2021
Employment & Immigration Institutional law

Court of Justice: EU institutions must ensure objective impartiality is preserved in the context of disciplinary proceedings against staff members

In Parliament v UZ (C-894/19 P), the Court of Justice dismissed the appeal brought by the European Parliament against the General Court’s judgment UZ v Parliament (T‑47/18) and recognised that the concept of ‘objective impartiality’ is applicable to the civil service and, more specifically, to an administrative investigation carried out in the context of disciplinary proceedings.

The request for a preliminary ruling originates in the administrative investigation against UZ, who was the head of unit at the Parliament from 2009. In 2014, 14 of the 15 members of her unit complained that they had suffered psychological harassment from UZ. Following the decision of the DG of the Directorate-General for Personnel, the management of the staff of the unit was transferred to another person and the administrative investigation was opened.

After various proceedings, the Secretary-General of the Parliament took the decision in 2017 to impose on UZ the disciplinary sanction of downgrading from grade AD 13, step 3, to grade AD 12, step 3, and resetting the merit points acquired in grade AD 13 to zero (‘the contested decision’). UZ lodged an action before the General Court against the contested decision and the subsequent rejection of her request for assistance. The General Court annulled the contested decision but dismissed the remainder of the action in so far as it concerned to the decision rejecting her request for assistance.

The Parliament challenged the judgment of the General Court before the Court of Justice requesting its annulment, while UZ lodged a cross-appeal seeking to set aside the judgment under appeal in so far as it dismissed the application for annulment of the decision rejecting her request for assistance.

The Court of Justice with its judgment dismissed both the main appeal and the cross-appeal. 

As regards the main appeal, the Court of Justice rejected all three grounds of appeal presented by the Parliament. The Court considered that the General Court did not err in its assessment when concluding that: (i) the administrative investigation was vitiated by a lack of objective impartiality, (ii) the principle of equality of arms had been violated during the work of the disciplinary council; and (iii) UZ’s right to be heard had been violated.

In particular, as to the first ground, the concept of ‘objective impartiality’ was considered to be applicable to an administrative investigation carried out in the context of disciplinary proceedings. This meant that the prior knowledge acquired by a disciplinary investigator about UZ having reported one of the complainants to the European Anti-Fraud Agency (OLAF) ‘as revenge’, could have given rise to a legitimate doubt as to the impartiality of that investigator, who might have been influenced by the particularly malicious nature of her alleged conduct. Similarly, the circumstance that the appointed harassment investigator previously chaired the advisory committee that concluded the transfer of management of the UZ’s unit to another person, could have called into question his objective impartiality.

As such, the Court held inter alia that the Parliament had failed in its obligation to ensure objective impartiality in the disciplinary proceedings and consequently dismissed the appeal. 

As regards the cross-appeal, the Court of Justice found that the arguments presented by UZ did not meet the requisite legal standard as they had not stated precisely the elements criticized in the judgment whose annulment is sought and thus also dismissed the appeal.

Access the judgment here (not available in English at the time of publication).

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