By William Wiley, February 20, 2018

Each year, the National Defense Authorization Act turns out to be a great piece of legislation into which members of Congress can stick things that have nothing to do with the nation’s defense. The Act for fiscal year 2018, HR 2810-335, is no exception. Dig through many pages in the bill of this and that, and you’ll find the following tidbit:

Sec. 1097(b)(5), INFORMATION ON APPEAL RIGHTS. —

(A) IN GENERAL. —Any notice provided to an employee under section 7503(b)(1), section 7513(b)(1), or section 7543(b)(1) of title 5, United States Code, shall include detailed information with respect to—

i. The right of the employee to appeal an action brought under the applicable section;

ii. The forums in which the employee may file an appeal described in clause (i); and

iii. Any limitations on the rights of the employee that would apply because of the forum in which the employee decides to file an appeal.

(B) DEVELOPMENT OF INFORMATION. —The information described in subparagraph (A) shall be developed by the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, in consultation with the Special Counsel, the Merit Systems Protection Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Context

To appreciate the relevance of this language, we need to know a couple of things:

Adverse Actions: To suspend, demote, or fire a Title V career federal employee, most agencies take what is known as an adverse action, 5 USC Chapter 75. Agencies must issue two separate documents to make an adverse action happen:

  • A proposal Notice that tells the employee why the action is being proposed, and explains the employee’s rights to defend himself, and
  • A Decision memo that takes into consideration the employee’s defense of himself, and notifies the employee of the outcome of the proposal; g., removal, demotion, suspension, or nothing.

Rights Notification:  Since the beginning of time (OK, maybe it was just since 1979), agencies have been required to include in the Decision memo an explanation of the employee’s rights to challenge the agency’s final action through appeal to MSPB. Historically, agencies have also included an explanation of the employee’s alternative rights to file a grievance under a collective bargaining agreement, a discrimination complaint to EEOC, and sometimes an explanation of the US Office of Special Counsel’s jurisdiction to consider claims of whistleblower reprisal.

About five years ago, MSPB decided that the various rights notifications used by different agencies were not uniformly informing to the employee of all the alternatives available to challenge the adverse action, and the implication of selecting one venue over the other. Therefore, by regulation, the Board mandated that agencies must provide a complete description of the various redress alternatives when issuing a decision in an adverse action appealable to MSPB.

However, for reasons unimaginable to the common mind, the Board did not say exactly what language should be used for the rights notification. That left agencies floundering around guessing what should be said in the rights notification to make the Board happy, and the Board reviewing those rights notifications judging some to be adequate and others not.

Here at good old FELTG, we did the best we could to sort all that out. As soon as the regulatory requirement was mandated, we offered draft language that we guessed the Board would accept. A few months later, we had to tweak that language because of an MSPB decision that pointed out the need for greater specificity of notice. Still, even with the second tweaked draft, we weren’t really sure that the MSPB was being appeased or whether it just had not gotten around to finding fault with what we had recommended. Lesser agencies who do not abide by our FELTG suggestions continued down whatever language rabbit hole they thought to be the better path. Quite frankly, we were all running backwards in the dark because of the lack of distinct and specific instruction.

Comes Now the NDFAA for Fiscal Year 2018:  Amazingly, somebody on Capitol Hill saw how foolish this was, and interjected the language you see above into a passing piece of legislation. No offense intended here, but I am awe-struck that someone up there appreciates the difficulty that this lack of guidance causes. Talk about civil service minutiae. Hats off to whoever saw the problem, and thanks for trying to fix a dilemma that should never have occurred.

Unfortunately, the law misses the point of a rights notification. An employee needs to know her rights to challenge an adverse action after the decision has been made to implement the action; e.g., in the Decision letter. The statutory language above requires that the rights notification be included in the Notice proposal. So now what will happen is that the poor employee likely will be confused and start filing appeals before the agency has made a decision as to whether an adverse action will be implemented at all, and if so, what it will be. If that happens, poor overworked MSPB will have to dismiss all those pre-decisional appeals as premature, and the confused employee will have to get good advice to know to refile once the final decision is issued. Groan.

MSPB, why in tarnation didn’t you just tell us what language to use as a rights notification in the first place? Why put it on us simpletons to guess at what you wanted? OPM, when you saw that MSPB wasn’t going to be helpful, why didn’t you have one of your senior people Uber over to M Street NW and talk with someone at the Board about a coordinated issuance of acceptable language? This is staff stuff. This is what staffs do. No big decision-making; that’s left to the politicals. Just normal people saying to normal people, “Hey, we got a procedural problem here. Can you help?” Geez, see what happens when you leave it up to Congress to fix something we should have fixed ourselves? Good try; just missed.

We’re all in this together: MSPB, OPM, EEOC, OSC, the other civil service movers and shakers; maybe even old FELTG, if you’ll allow us a guest pass. The goal is to make government work smoothly and fairly. Congress is going to continue to micromanage us until we learn to manage ourselves. This is not the best way to make government work well. Wiley@FELTG.com

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