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Patterson v. Department of Health and Social Services

Superior Court of Delaware

October 13, 2017

KRYSTAL PATTERSON, Employee-Below/Appellant,

          Submitted: August 4, 2017


          Abigail M. LeGrow, Judge

         On Appellant's Appeal from the Merit Employee Relations Board: DENIED

         1. This is an appeal from the Merit Employee Relations Board's ("the Board") decision concerning Petitioner's termination under Merit Rule 12.1 for violation of the state code of conduct and IT policies. The appeal presents two primary issues: (i) whether the Board had substantial evidence to find Patterson violated the state code of conduct and IT policies when her employee ID and password were used in connection with a scheme to defraud DMS of over $13, 000 in unauthorized overtime pay; and (ii) whether DMS had just cause for terminating Patterson's employment under Merit Rule 12.1 when DMS found she violated said policies.

          Factual Background

         2. Appellant Krystal Patterson was an accounting specialist with the Division of Management Services ("DMS") until she was terminated on September 4, 2015. As an accounting specialist, Patterson entered timekeeping and payroll records for the Department's employees into the Payroll/Human Resources Statewide Technology ("PHRST") system. Her termination followed an investigation into apparent fraudulent authorization of overtime pay for two of Patterson's coworkers.

         3. At DMS, employee overtime first is authorized by an accounting specialist and then is entered into PHRST through a "special exceptions" report. Each accounting specialist entering the special report has to sign it with their initials. Then, a different accounting specialist conducting a quality assurance review signs their initials on the same day, or by Wednesday of the same week. Accounting specialists cannot enter their own overtime.

         4. On June 18, 2015, Patterson's supervisor, a Fiscal Administrative Officer, emailed DMS Controller Morton, relaying that Patterson complained the overtime policy was not being enforced fairly. Patterson and another accounting specialist, Mandi Rosado, were denied authorization for overtime because they did not have the necessary documentation. Before complaining to the supervisor, Patterson entered Rosado's payroll information without overtime and it was checked by quality control.

         5. Later, Patterson went into PHRST's system to discover Rosado was paid overtime without the authorization. Patterson then told quality control that she believed Rosado's payroll records were changed after it was approved by quality control. Controller Morton confirmed later that Rosado received an additional $293.63 in unauthorized overtime during that pay period.

         6. Suspicious of these entries, Morton discovered that Christie Kahn, another accounting specialist, received up to $1, 100 of unauthorized overtime during the same period. The only and last modifications made to Rosado's and Kahn's timekeeping records were made through Patterson's electronic signature. Morton then launched a full investigation of the DMS payroll for FY 2014 & 2015.

         7. That investigation revealed Kahn alone received $13, 000 in unauthorized overtime payments. The unauthorized overtime payments to Kahn and Rosado were made under Patterson's electronic signature for almost eight months, although there was no record Patterson received unauthorized overtime or other financial gain. Patterson testified that she never gave her password to anyone, never wrote it down, and changed it according to IT policies.

         8. Many of the key issues in the investigation centered around the PHRST security system. The passwords each accounting specialist uses to enter overtime into PHRST are changed every 90 days. Anyone attempting to sign in has three attempts before they are locked out by the system. This was designed to prevent unauthorized users from guessing passwords. The PHRST system cannot, however, identify which computer is used to sign into the system.

         9. Morton's investigation revealed Patterson's desk had sticky notes with what appeared to be passwords on them. Patterson testified that these passwords were for other email accounts. One note, however, read "Phrst" with "Jaelyn26" underneath. Patterson could not explain why "Phrst" was on that sticky note or what it meant. When asked what her last PHRST password was, Patterson testified it was Jaelyn08. Jaelyn is the name of Patterson's daughter; the numbers associated with Jaelyn's date of birth all were used for various passwords posted at Patterson's desk. In addition to numerals, PHRST passwords require a special character. Patterson testified that she "[thought] you have to use a dollar sign" as the special character. Patterson's desk contained at least one password that included a dollar sign.

         10. Based on these findings, DMS recommended Patterson's termination. DMS sent Patterson a letter advising her of her right to file a grievance and participate in a pre-termination hearing. The letter stated the investigation revealed unauthorized overtime for Rosado and Kahn which "violated the public trust and reflected unfavorably ...

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