By Deborah Hopkins, June 12, 2019
In my travels across the globe teaching federal supervisors about the federal government’s accountability systems, one of the most-often-asked questions involves what supervisors can do to better their chances of defending their actions. Do they need more evidence? Witness statements? Video logs? A track record of poor performance a mile long?
All of that is fine, but I have an easier answer and it costs about 75 cents: an old-fashioned notebook. In the 40-plus years since the Civil Service Reform Act went into effect, we have seen case after case that hinged on contemporaneous note-taking – or the lack thereof – by agency supervisors or other management officials. I tell all the new supervisors I train that they need to go out to their nearest office supply store, and get a notebook pronto, since supervising in the federal government is a defensive practice.
While supervisors are generally given the benefit of the doubt in credibility determinations, the best way to supplement and enrich testimony is by producing contemporaneous notes. And the preference by administrative judges, still to this day, are hand-written notes as opposed to computer logs or even notes supervisors email themselves to document workplace events.
Let’s take a look at three types of cases where notes were the make-or-break point for the agency: Discipline, Whistleblower Reprisal, and EEO Complaints. We’ll look at a case the agency won (because of the notes) and a case the agency lost (because there were no notes, or there was a problem with the notes) in each category.
Discipline: Agency Winner
In our first case today, we have a removal case where the appellant engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, including failure to follow supervisory instructions. He disclosed the details of an ongoing agency investigation after his supervisor directly told him not to speak about it. The MSPB administrative judge (AJ) found that the agency failed to prove the charge of failure to follow supervisory instructions because the supervisor could not recall the exact words she used when giving an order to the employee. But the MSPB reversed the AJ’s finding and determined that the supervisor’s contemporaneous notes made shortly after the conversation with the employee, even though they were not a verbatim word-for-word recollection, supplemented her testimony. The charge was then sustained. Von Muller v. DOE, 101 MSPR 91 (Feb. 13, 2006).
Discipline: Agency Loser
In another failure to follow instructions case dealing with an agency investigation, the agency removed an employee for improper conduct because the employee failed to cooperate in an investigation, and failed to obey a supervisor’s order to leave the premises after his tour of duty had ended. At hearing, the supervisor’s testimony was different from what he had written in his contemporaneous notes about the situation, and that inconsistency led to a lack of credibility before the judge and, ultimately, before the MSPB. Because of the inconsistency in the notes, and the lack of any additional supporting evidence for the agency’s charge, the removal was mitigated to a 21-day suspension. Eichner v. USPS, 83 MSPR 202 (Aug. 6, 1999).
Whistleblowing: Agency Winner
When an agency takes an action against a whistleblower, the burden of proof rises from preponderance of the evidence or substantial evidence, depending on the type of case, to clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is a heavy burden, defined in the case law as “That measure of degree of proof that produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief as to the allegations sought to be established.” Schnell v. Army, 114 MSPR 83 (2010).
A whistleblower at DOJ was given a performance rating he did not agree with, and challenged the rating as an act of whistleblower reprisal. The agency was able to show clear and convincing evidence that the rating was warranted because, in addition to the supervisor’s specific testimony about the appellant’s performance issues, the supervisor had contemporaneous documentation that supported his observations. In addition, the agency was able to show that the appellant had performance problems prior to whistleblowing, and that documented complaints about the appellant’s performance came from outside chain of command. That, folks, is clear and convincing evidence. Rumsey v. DoJ, 2013 MSPB 82.
Whistleblowing: Agency Loser
The appellant blew the whistle on her supervisor, alleging harassment and intimidation and claiming that management and the EEO office had not taken any action. Shortly thereafter, she was informed that she was being reassigned. According to the appellant, when she questioned the reason for her reassignment she was informed by the VA hospital’s lead employee/labor relations specialist that the reassignment was due to her allegations of a hostile work environment involving her supervisor. The only evidence the agency presented in response to this allegation was two general statements, in affidavit form, denying that the reassignment was due to whistleblowing, but that it was because the appellant was unhappy with her supervisor. No additional evidence or documentation was provided, so the agency did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the reassignment was not whistleblower reprisal. Moore v. DVA, DA-1221-13-0213-W-1 (March 10, 2015) (NP).
EEO: Agency Winner
In an interesting religious accommodation case, an employee requested to be allowed to wear a nine-inch ceremonial blade in the workplace, even though she worked in a federal building and the blade violated the security requirements. The agency could have simply said no because allowing the kirpan would have been more than a de minimis burden, but in an exercise of good faith, the agency also contemporaneously documented attempts to accommodate the employee including considering full-time telework and alternative work locations. Neither of these options worked with the employee’s job requirements, and the agency prevailed in showing that it did not engage in religious discrimination of the complainant because it documented the accommodation attempts. Tagore v. United States, 735 F.3d 324 (5th Cir. Tex. 2013).
EEO: Agency Loser
The complainant applied for a promotion and was not selected. She filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on race, sex, and reprisal for prior EEO activity. The four selection panel officials admitted the complainant was qualified but could not explain why she was not selected. There were no notes, scores or specific explanations of the scoring process in the record. One of the selection panel members asserted that he did not remember why she was not selected but that he “could only assume” her application did not show she had the skills needed to work at a higher level. That lack of contemporaneous documentation cost the agency the case. Hatcher-Capers v. USPS, EEOC No. 07A60008 (2006).
There are hundreds of other cases that show how contemporaneous documentation – or the lack thereof – is the deciding factor. Don’t let the next Loser case be yours; go buy a notebook today. Hopkins@FELTG.com