I think I’ve read maybe 10,000 MSPB initial decisions over the years. Most were good to very good, a real credit to the judges at the Board and their leadership. However, every now and then – perhaps 1 out of a 1000 – stands out as particularly well done. And recently, I ran across one of those.
The appellant’s situation is a sad one. After receiving a proposed 14-day suspension for possession of alcohol on agency premises and unauthorized use of government property, the employee entered into a Last Chance agreement (LCA) in which the agency agreed to hold the implementation of the suspension in abeyance to give the employee a chance to undergo rehabilitation related to his alcohol use. A condition of the agreement was that the employee would refrain from future misconduct for one year.
Very smart agency move – most likely implemented by one of our FELTG-certified MSPB Law Week practitioners.
Unfortunately, the employee just could not get his situation under control. So when the agency later found him under the influence of alcohol and living in an agency building (with his dog! Isn’t that some sort of mitigating factor under Douglas?), the agency notified the employee that he had violated the abeyance agreement, and imposed a 14-day suspension. A month later, it proposed the employee’s removal based on charges of alcohol impairment and misuse of government facilities. In selecting the removal penalty, the deciding official relied on the originally-abated 14-day suspension as a prior act of discipline, thereby applying the principle of “progressive discipline,” and fired the employee. Duffy v. DVA, SF-0752-15-0552-I-1 (June 15, 2016).
I’ve been waiting on resolution of this narrow point for a number of years. Suspensions that are held in abeyance are rare as compared to removals held in abeyance, so the issue does not come up often. On one hand, as the judge did here, I can see counting the suspension as a prior act of discipline because the employee engaged in previous misconduct and served his suspension prior to the proposal to removal. On the other hand, as a psychologist, I can argue that the suspension should not have been considered as a prior act of discipline because the employee has not had the “benefit” of the negative reinforcement that comes from serving a suspension. We punish (cause a little pain by suspending without pay) to motivate an employee to do better, to obey our rules. In this case, the employee was punished after he committed the misconduct that resulted in his removal. Therefore, he did not have the benefit of the pain of a suspension to motivate improved conduct. And arguably therefore, the suspension cannot be counted as a prior act of discipline for the purpose of an enhanced penalty based on progressive discipline.
Fortunately for DVA, this judge had no problem with counting the suspension as a prior for purposes of a Douglas analysis. And unless that finding is set aside on appeal, it will become a rule we can all apply. If so, I can see a future in which we never suspend anyone. If we can get the same bang for our buck by holding the suspension in abeyance and implementing it only when there is future misconduct warranting discipline, why in the world would we go through the hassle of a grievance, an arbitration in a union environment, an EEO complaint, or a complaint to the Office of Special Counsel? A smart agency (as here) would propose a suspension, then cut a deal with an employee to accept an abeyance agreement instead. Soooo much easier.
I love this decision for taking on this issue and stating an answer. At least now we have something to hang our litigation hats on should we choose to use an abeyance’d-suspension as a prior act of misconduct in a penalty analysis. But there’s so much more.
There were a number of other issues in this case:
- Did the employee waive his rights in the LCA to challenge any eventual removal for misconduct?
- Does a charge of “alcohol impairment” require an agency to prove that the employee was legally intoxicated?
- What weight should be given to unsworn statements by law enforcement officers as to the indicia of the employee’s being under the influence; e.g. slurred speech, swaying, disorientation?
- What is the best evidence that should be presented when using the results of a breathalyzer test to establish intoxication?
- How valuable is a penalty-of-perjury-declaration when the deciding official swears that just one of the two charges proposed would warrant removal?
- Why is it prudent to have the Proposing Official complete a Douglas Factor analysis as compared to a Deciding Official?
The reason I love this decision is that the judge to his great credit took on each issue (raised by highly competent appellant counsel, by the way), cited extensively to the record and the controlling precedence, and then reached a firm, defensible conclusion. The initial decision is 25 pages long with 17 footnotes. I encourage anyone who has any of these issues to review the well-written and well-supported judge’s decision. You will find rationale and case law to support exactly where the Board is today on each of these matters: 116 LRP 35609 if you have CyberFEDS©. Alternatively, you can come to the next FELTG seminar MSPB Law Week seminar (March 13-17, 2017 in Washington, DC) and we will be happy to explain this stuff to you.
Yet I also hate this decision. It took this very smart judge 25 pages and 17 footnotes to resolve this appeal. Yes, he has created a terrific learning tool for us practitioners. However, the expense of the creation of this learning tool is significant. In my practice, it takes me about an hour to write each page of a legal document like a decision. Given the workload that the current leadership at MSPB (soon to be gone in just over four months) has placed on itself and thereby its judges, one has to wonder whether the cost of this decision is worth the value it has provided to the appellant and to the agency. In other words, could a shorter decision have been written to provide the same value to the parties as this longer decision did, without taking so much legal time and effort to get there?
Of course, here at FELTG, we like to ask ourselves questions, and then answer them so that we look smart. We encourage you to read the judge’s decision in its entire 25-page glory, and then consider the following as an alternative way of resolving an appeal of a removal in a case that has many significant issues and is well-litigated:
Heading: [As usual]
Appellant Darrell Duffy has appealed removal from his position as a WG-4749-10 Maintenance Mechanic for misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Alcohol impairment – On December 17, 2014, a breathalyzer revealed the appellant’s blood alcohol level to be 0.065.
- Misuse of Government Property – On December 17, 2014, the appellant was found to be storing approximately 40 boxes of personal property within agency facilities.
- Claim – The appellant waived rights to appeal this removal because of a “Last Chance Agreement” (LCA) that held a prior 14-day suspension in abeyance.
Holding – Although the LCA specifically waives the appellant’s rights to contest the 14-day suspension, it did not specifically address waiver of any appeal rights relative to a subsequent removal. Moreover, the agency treated the subsequent removal as a classic adverse action removal by basing the removal on new charges and by giving the appellant full Board appeal rights. If the agency believed that the appellant had waived his rights to a subsequent removal when he entered into the LCA, it would not have framed new charges and it would not have given MSPB appeal rights. Therefore, the appellant may challenge the validity of the removal on the merits as there is NO RIGHTS WAIVER.
- Claim – A charge of “Alcohol Impaired” requires the agency to prove intoxication at a level defined in law as legally intoxicated.
Holding – A charge of impairment does not require proof of intoxication. The unsworn statements of the police officers (though better if sworn) that the employee’s speech was slurred, that he was disoriented, had bloodshot watery eyes, appeared nervous and standoffish, and smelled of alcohol coupled with the breathalyzer reading and the employee’s admission that he had been drinking the night before, established that it is more likely than not that he was alcohol-impaired while at work. Although I have credited the unsworn statements of the police officers relative to the breathalyzer results, better evidence would have been a contemporaneous photograph of the reading on the breathalyzer. Charge 1 is SUSTAINED.
- Claim – Appellant’s decision to move personal items into the agency’s facility was caused by a lapse in judgment that resulted from his alcoholism.
Holding – Whether intentional or inadvertent due to his alcoholism, the photographic and testimonial evidence fully supports that the appellant stored personal items, including a dog, on agency premises without authorization. The appellant stated in deposition that his poor judgment was not related to his alcoholism. Charge 2 is SUSTAINED.
- Claim– The agency committed three harmful errors: 1) double-punishment, 2) failure to conduct a proper investigation, and 3) the Proposing Official conducted a premature Douglas Factor analysis.
Holding – As for 1) the double-punishment claim, the 14-day suspension was for alcohol at work in November. Although the December alcohol event established a breach of the LCA and also formed the basis for the eventual removal, it was not the basis for the prior discipline that resulted from the November alcohol event. Separately, the Deciding Official testified that he would have removed the employee even if there had not been a prior disciplinary act based on alcohol. Therefore, no double punishment. As for the 2) proper investigation issue, although the appellant points to sections of the relevant collective bargaining agreement that arguably call for a management investigation separate from a police investigation, even if error, the appellant has not shown how he was harmed by the error. As for the 3) claim that it is agency policy for the Deciding Official to perform a Douglas analysis, not the Proposing Official, I am aware of no law, regulation, or policy that imposes such a limit. In fact, given the holding in Ward v. USPS, 634 F.3d 1274 (Fed. Cir. 2011), such an approach would appear to be prudent and act to ameliorate potential injustice. Therefore, I find the agency DID NOT COMMIT ANY HARMFUL ERRORS.
- Claim – The agency failed to accommodate the appellant’s disability of alcoholism and otherwise treated him disparately and harassed him because of his alcoholism.
Holding – The appellant presented neither direct nor circumstantial evidence that he was treated more harshly as compared to non-alcoholics who engaged in similar misconduct. In addition, even if alcoholism caused the employee’s misconduct, he is not immunized from discipline. The agency is free to hold him to the same conduct standards as a non-disabled employee. As for a failure to accommodate the appellant by refraining from disciplining him and allowing him to seek treatment for his alcoholism, an alcoholic is not entitled to such a “firm choice” accommodation. As for any claim of disparate impact, the appellant has not presented any statistical evidence to support such a claim. As for the claim of harassment based on his status as an alcoholic, the appellant has not presented any evidence that any treatment by the agency was motivated by his status as an alcoholic. Therefore, I find NO DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION.
- Claim – The agency has failed to prove a nexus between the appellant’s misconduct and government efficiency because it has not proven that the appellant could not do his job satisfactorily even though he was under the influence of alcohol at work and stored personal possessions in the agency’s facility.
Holding – Proof of nexus is not restricted to demonstrating actual impediment to full job performance. Charges such as these implicate a palpable effect on management’s trust and confidence in an employee’s job performance. Therefore, I conclude that the agency HAS PROVEN A NEXUS between the charged misconduct and the efficiency of the service.
- Claim – The penalty of removal is unreasonable.
Holding – The Deciding Official’s analysis of the Douglas Factors is complete and worthy of deference. He relied heavily on the original Douglas Factor analysis completed by the Proposing Official and found it holistic and compelling. Relevant aggravating factors included safety concerns raised by the appellant’s misconduct, the repeated nature of the misconduct within only a year, the public nature of his work, prior notice of his misconduct, the fact that this was a second disciplined offense, a lack of rehabilitation potential, and a lack of alternative sanctions. Therefore, I find that ANY MITIGATING FACTORS ARE OUTWEIGHED BY THESE AGGRAVATING FACTORS.
Decision: I AFFIRM the removal action.
[Standard petition for review rights.]
As we teach in the wonderful FELTG Legal Writing seminar, the author of a legal document should always keep in mind the purpose of the document. Therefore, we should ask, “What is the purpose of a judge’s decision?” Here at FELTG, we would argue that in a removal appeal the purposes of an Initial Decision are, in priority order:
- To resolve the question of whether the agency legally removed the appellant.
- To inform the parties as to what the judge concluded relative to the issues on appeal.
- To justify the judge’s decision to those who might review it on further review: Board members and federal judges.
While this decision is terrific for its well-reasoned and authoritatively-supported conclusions, it feels as if it is trying to address a purpose other than these three. Whether there are additional purposes, and whether they are worth the cost involved in drafting a 25-page decision, are questions that we hope the new leadership at the Board will address. Another little note for our new President. [email protected]