By Deborah Hopkins, April 27, 2021

A couple weeks ago, Bob Woods and I held a webinar on the new PIP justification requirement issued by the Federal Circuit in Santos v. NASA, No. 2019-2345, (Fed. Cir. Mar. 11, 2021), that undid more than 40 years of case precedent. In case you missed the news flash, the law now requires agencies to have substantial evidence of poor performance before they can place an employee on a PIP – and they must present that evidence as part of their case in chief before the MSPB, should there be a performance-based removal. If you haven’t yet read the article, I wrote about it last month. You’ll want to take a look at that first before you keep reading: Say Goodbye to 40 Years of Case Precedent: Agencies Must Justify PIPs.

And if you didn’t attend the webinar, we’re holding a live encore webinar May 11, where we get into all the necessary details, requirements, and takeaways. Because this is the most significant case on performance since the very early days of the Civil Service Reform Act, it’s one you can’t afford to miss.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a preview of the kinds of questions that Bob and I received during the webinar. Please keep in mind that the information presented here is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contacting FELTG in any way/format does not create the existence of an attorney-client relationship.

Q: How long does an agency need to show the employee was performing at an unacceptable level, prior to implementing a PIP?

A: The Santos case doesn’t give any indication about a minimum time period, it requires the agency show substantial evidence of unacceptable performance. Sometimes one mistake on one day could equal unacceptable performance; other times it might take a month or two for an employee to reach a certain number of exceptions to a standard, that causes their performance to become unacceptable.

Agencies shouldn’t feel obligated to come up with an arbitrary number of days to satisfy the requirement (we’ve heard some agencies advising anywhere from 30 to 90 days or more – eek!), but instead should look at the performance standards to be sure the unacceptable performance the supervisor has seen, actually matches the written standard for unacceptable. As soon as that happens, the PIP can be justified.

Q: Can the notification of unacceptable performance be part of the PIP? Our standard PIP normally includes language like “This is to information you that your performance is unacceptable” and gives examples. Is this adequate?

A: Yes, it sounds adequate. While FELTG recommends including the justification document as an attachment, this approach you’ve detailed should also satisfy the Federal Circuit’s requirement post-Santos to document pre-PIP unacceptable performance.

Q: For the “roller coaster” employee who, for example, “passes” the initial 30-day PIP, and receives notification that they passed, if they then later dip in performance and their performance warrants removal, is it necessary for the agency to provide another notice that the performance has dipped before removal? Without an intervening notice, the only notice the employee would receive before the removal is that they passed the PIP.

A: There’s no requirement in the law to provide notice, but we recommend at the conclusion of the PIP, to issue a “Performance Warning Letter” that lets the employee know they will be removed at any time between now and X date (the end of the one-year period, with Day 1 of the PIP starting the year) if their performance becomes unacceptable on the critical element(s) from the PIP.

If the employee falls back into unacceptable performance after successfully completing the PIP within the one-year period, the only notice they receive at that point is the notice of proposed removal, which will articulate their unacceptable performance that the proposed removal is based on.

Q: What are your thoughts regarding employees who, at times, perform “other duties as assigned” and are then placed on a PIP based on unacceptable performance on those ODAA? Is it still OK to place an employee on a PIP based on the observed unacceptable performance or is it better to stick to the critical elements outlined in the performance plan?

A: A PIP may only be used for unacceptable performance related to the critical elements in the employee’s performance plan. If the ODAA relates to a critical element, the agency is free to PIP. But if it’s something unrelated to any critical element, for example a special assignment because the employee is on covid-related telework, it would be inappropriate to place an employee on a PIP. Such a situation could be handled with the Chapter 75 procedures. We have a webinar on this topic May 13, Handling Teleworker Performance and Conduct Challenges, if you need more details.

Good luck with this new requirement. Let us know how it’s going out there. Hopkins@FELTG.com

The information presented here is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contacting FELTG in any way/format does not create the existence of an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

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