By Dan Gephart, August 8, 2022
For five-plus years, we at FELTG and others have referred to the then-growing backlog of cases at the Merit Systems Protection Board with dread. So the enthusiasm with which MSPB Acting Chair Cathy Harris is approaching her new position, as evidenced by her appearance on the radio and here, is surprising. And refreshing. And very hopeful.
The Acting Chair said she was “honored and humbled to be nominated” by President Biden. “I am committed to doing the very best I can to protect the merit systems and achieve justice,” she told us. “What an incredible opportunity!”
Harris says “opportunity.” Others see challenge, to put it lightly. The new Board inherited a 3,500-case backlog, at which they’ve been dutifully whittling away. But there are some anxious employees and agencies, who have been waiting a long time for resolution of their cases. And new cases are coming in every day.
DG: What would you say to someone who has a Petition for Review and is wondering when the Board is going to get to it?
CH: We are diligently working to get to your case. The good news is that the career staff has done the work to prepare the Board members to be able to make efficient and thoughtful decisions, so we are not starting from scratch. That said, it is going to take time for us to consider and get to all the decisions that are awaiting our review. We don’t yet have an estimate as to when we will be able to project when we will get through the case inventory but am hoping we should be able to do that before too long.
DG: What are your thoughts about Federal Circuit decisions on issues that the Board didn’t have an opportunity to address (given the lack of a quorum) and their impact on future MSPB decisions?
CH: Appellants may take their cases directly to the Federal Circuit after a decision from an administrative judge. During the lack of a quorum, this enabled appellants to get appellate review of their cases. But appellants have this right even in the presence of a quorum, so the Board is accustomed to situations where it may not have had an opportunity to opine on certain issues.
DG: Is there any extra effort given to encourage settlement on backlogged cases?
CH: Yes. We are actively exploring ways in which we can identify cases that might be appropriate for settlement. We encourage parties to contact the PFR Settlement Program if they feel their case would be appropriate for mediation at this juncture. As time has passed and circumstances have changed, we understand it may be easier for parties to achieve a resolution now. Interested parties may contact the PFR Settlement Program at (800) 209-8960.
DG: Is the Board considering shortening decisions to speed up the backlog reduction?
CH: Yes. The Board will be issuing shorter decisions where appropriate.
DG: Is there a mechanism in place for giving feedback to administrative judges regarding the quality of their decisions?
CH: Yes. Internally, administrative judges receive instructive guidance through Board decisions. Further, pursuant to MSPB’s Judges’ Handbook, Chapter 12, Chief Administrative Judges review initial decisions written by administrative judges below the GS-15 grade level prior to issuance.
Chief Administrative Judges also review initial decisions for complex cases written by administrative judges at the GS-15 grade level prior to issuance. Other initial decisions are reviewed after issuance. Chief Administrative Judges and Regional Directors provide direct feedback to administrative judges regarding whether initial decisions sufficiently adhered to authorities such as the Judges’ Handbook, MSPB regulations, and relevant statutes and case law.
My message to all federal employees, not just supervisors, is: The Board is fully back, and we are committed to protecting the merit systems. Employees and supervisors would do well to educate themselves as to merit system principles and prohibited personnel practices. There is more information on these topics on our website.
[Editor’s note: See our previous interviews with Member Tristan Levitt and then-Acting-Chair Raymond Limon, and register for the MSPB and EEOC Case Law Update on August 31 from 3-4:15 pm ET, part of FELTG’s annual Federal Workplace 2022: Accountability, Challenges and Trends event, or MSPB Law Week September 12-16.] Gephart@FELTG.com