By Deborah Hopkins, July 25, 2022

Did you happen to catch the latest precedent-altering MSPB decision related to affirmative defenses? This one’s a little weedy, but interesting nonetheless, especially to MSPB nerds like myself.

The appellant, a custodial laborer for the USPS, was removed on a charge of improper conduct with specifications including:

  • Telling a coworker that if his [the appellant’s] vehicle was towed from the agency parking lot again, he “would come into work and end up shooting someone out of revenge and anger.”
  • Telling the same coworker that he was having law enforcement follow her because of a verbal dispute the two had a year earlier and that the “only reason [he] didn’t have anything ‘bad’ happen to her was because she has children.”
  • Telling the same coworker, the following day, he was having law enforcement follow and harass a supervisor’s son in retaliation for his vehicle being towed from the agency parking lot and that he would make sure that the supervisor’s son was “booked” for “Driving Under the Influence … and other traffic violations.”

The appellant challenged his removal. In addition to claiming he did not engage in the activity leading to the charges, he also raised an affirmative defense of reprisal for prior protected activity – he had filed an MSPB appeal over an “emergency suspension” he received after the aforementioned misconduct occurred. (If you don’t know what an affirmative defense is, please join us for MSPB Law Week September 12-16 for all you need to know.)

The Administrative Judge (AJ) upheld the removal. However, his decision did not reference the affirmative defense, as that had not come up in any prehearing conference. On petition for review to the Board, the appellant challenged his removal, but did not challenge the fact that the AJ never addressed the affirmative defense.

You with me so far?

Before this case came out, precedential MSPB caselaw required the Board to remand cases for consideration of an appellant’s affirmative defense if the AJ failed to comply with certain procedural requirements. Wynn v. USPS, 2010 MSPB 214. The Board overturned Wynn and other related cases, establishing new criteria for the Board to consider in determining whether an AJ erred in not addressing an appellant’s affirmative defense at the hearing stage. As MSPB’s case report said in its summary, a potential remand hinges on the “ultimate question of whether an appellant demonstrated his intent to continue pursuing his affirmative defense, and whether he conveyed that intent after filing the initial appeal.”

Below is the non-exhaustive list of factors the Board will consider in determining whether a remand is appropriate:

(1) the thoroughness and clarity with which the appellant raised an affirmative defense;

(2) the degree to which the appellant continued to pursue the affirmative defense in the proceedings below after initially raising it;

(3) whether the appellant objected to a summary of the issues to be decided that failed to include the potential affirmative defense when specifically afforded an opportunity to object and the consequences of the failure were made clear;

(4) whether the appellant raised the affirmative defense or the administrative judge’s processing of the affirmative defense claim in the petition for review;

(5)  whether the appellant was represented during the course of the appeal before the administrative judge and on petition for review, and if not, the level of knowledge of Board proceedings possessed by the appellant; and

(6)  the likelihood that the presumptive abandonment of the affirmative defense was the product of confusion, or misleading or incorrect information provided by the agency or the Board.

Thurman v. USPS, 2022 MSPB 21 (Jul. 12, 2022).

In this case, the Board applied the above factors and determined that the appellant abandoned his affirmative defense, thus there was no basis for remand. As a result, the Board upheld the removal. We’ll discuss this one and others during September’s MSPB Law Week. Hopkins@FELTG.com

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