By Deborah Hopkins, March 13, 2019
A few days ago I got a nice note from a FELTG customer, who had a question about an employee with excessive absences. Allow me to paraphrase a snippet that you might find interesting.
I recall learning in one of your courses that a supervisor who approves leave cannot then turn around and use the approved leave to support a disciplinary charge of excessive absence. Is this correct – and if so, are there any exceptions?
And here’s the answer: While there’s a fundamental principle that says an agency cannot discipline someone for being on approved leave, there are indeed exceptions. At FELTG, we like to highlight these kinds of exceptions, as they provide us with the coordinates of the outer boundaries of the law, for taking these kinds of actions.
The foundational case for excessive absence removals, one that every employment law practitioner should read, is Cook v. Army, 18 MSPR 610 (1984). This case sets out the elements required for an excessive absence removal, where an employee has been on approved leave for a period of time but the agency can no longer allow the absence to continue, and needs to remove the employee for not being able to work. Here they are:
- The employee was absent for reasons beyond her control;
- For example, she was too sick to come in to work.
- The absences continued beyond a reasonable time;
- For example, she was gone for 2 months out of 6 months after her FMLA ran out (see Gartner v. Army, 2007 MSPB 8; Savage v. Army, 2015 MSPB 51).
- The supervisor warned the employee that she would be removed if she did not report to work;
- Send the employee a letter that tells her this.
- The agency showed that the position needed to be filled on a regular, full-time basis
- Your Douglas analysis on the harm caused by the employee being gone is key here.
After you read Cook, take a look at Curtis v. USPS, 2009 MSPB 134, in which a Cook removal was upheld when, over a 21-month period, the employee was absent for 77 days (on approved LWOP) due to PTSD and depression. That works out to about one day per week. If this kind of intermittent attendance happens for a couple of weeks, you don’t have a burden – but this went on for nearly two years and the agency was able to show a hardship in the absences.
You’ll want to be careful here. You can rely on approved annual leave, sick leave, and LWOP but you cannot count FMLA excused absences (these are an entitlement) or AWOL (which is an act of misconduct) when determining what constitutes excessive absence. See McCauley v. DoI, 116 MSPR 484 (2011); Savage, supra.
If you can’t meet even one of the Cook elements listed above, you can’t Cook an employee. Let’s look at a couple of cases that demonstrate this point.
First up is Miles v. DVA, CH-0752-14-0374-I-2 (May 17, 2016). Miles had been out on approved leave for quite some time (1,000 hours, if I remember correctly) and the agency needed him to come back to work, so they sent him a letter telling him so. The warning letter told the employee that if he did not return to work, he would be disciplined – but it did NOT state that absence on approved leave would warrant dismissal. There was the agency’s first problem. Secondly, Miles’ medical documentation said he could return to work in six months, which was a foreseeable end to the absence. The agency had already granted 1,000 hours of approved leave, and the workload was actually getting done in the office despite his absence. The result: MSPB decided the agency did not meet the Cook burden, and Miles got his job back.
Another case to check out where the agency lost an excessive absence removal, is New v. DVA, 99 MSPR 404 (2005). In this case the employee had 12% absences over a five-year period but the MSPB reversed his termination because the Cook criteria were not met – being absent 12% of the time is not excessive enough.
One other approach to consider with an employee who is too sick to work, rather than Cook-ing him, is doing a non-disciplinary Medical Inability to Perform removal. I know it’s not easy on the conscience to fire someone who is in a bad medical place and is too sick to come to work; after all, you’re not dealing with someone who is breaking the rules for fun. But the good news is, these removals almost always help the employee’s case in an application for disability retirement. For information on this, and a whole lot more, join FELTG for Absence, Leave Abuse & Medical Issues Week, March 25-29 in Washington, DC. Hopkins@FELTG.com