By Deborah Hopkins, February 15, 2022
A lot of FELTG training involves how agencies should handle disciplinary actions known as Otherwise Appealable Actions, or OAAs. OAAs are suspensions of 15 days or more, demotions, and removals. OAAs get their name because they are agency actions that by statute the employee may appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB or the Board). You may think OAAs comprise most of the MSPB’s caseload. In reality, only about half of the Board’s cases deal with OAAs.
Generally, if an employee files an appeal to the MSPB over a 10-day suspension, reprimand, or low performance rating, the Board does not have jurisdiction and would dismiss the appeal because these actions, while unpleasant to the employee, are not OAAs. But there’s an exception in which a Federal employee (or former employee) can file an appeal to the MSPB over an action that would otherwise not be within the Board’s jurisdiction. It’s the Individual Right of Action (IRA).
The employee is entitled to an IRA hearing if the employee claims a personnel action (reprimand, short suspension, low performance rating, significant changes to job duties, to name just a few) was motivated by the fact that the employee had:
- Exercised any appeal right that includes a claim of whistleblower reprisal;
- Cooperated with an agency’s inspector general or OSC investigators;
- Refused to follow an order that would require a violation of law, rule, or regulation; or
- Assisted another employee in the exercise of that employee’s rights.
5 USC 2302(b)(8)-(9).
IRAs aren’t rare. In 2020, 11 percent of the Board’s caseload dealt with IRAs.
The Federal Circuit has been quite busy lately (perhaps because the MSPB has been without a quorum for 1,866 days) handling appeals over the outcomes of Administrative Judge decisions on Board IRAs.
Here are a few recent and notable takeaways:
Smolinski v. MSPB, No. 21-1751 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 19, 2022)
The appellant, a visiting provider at an Army hospital, alleged several instances of reprisal for protected activity. While the court rejected most of the claims, it referenced the abuse of authority standard in whistleblower reprisal complaints: “Although 5 U.S.C. § 2302 does not define the term ‘abuse of authority,’ the court found it appropriate to apply the definitions found in related whistleblower protection statutes … and determined that the alleged conduct … would qualify.”
In addition, the court said that in determining jurisdiction over an IRA appeal, the MSPB is not limited to the four corners of the appellant’s original OSC complaint, and that it may consider other relevant agency evidence that supports the appellant’s allegations.
Gessel v. MSPB, No. 21-1815 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 19, 2022) (NP)
This case involved an Air Force employee’s probationary removal. While probationers don’t have full MSPB appeal rights, they still may file an IRA appeal at the MSPB over the removal if they claim it was motivated by reprisal for protected activity. This employee was fired as a probationer because he lost a key to a government building, and the agency had to pay a large amount of money to have the building rekeyed. The employee claimed his removal was not for the loss of the key but rather because he was a whistleblower who made a protected disclosure. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s dismissal of the IRA and found the disclosures were not protected but were the result of typical workplace conflicts. Reports that his coworker made him “uncomfortable,” was “confrontational and attempt[ed] to supervise or discipline him,” and “often watch[ed] foolish and juvenile rap videos and other material,” did not meet the standard set out in the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Marana v. MSPB, No. 21-1463 (Fed. Cir. Jan 20, 2022) (NP)
The appellant, a nurse at an Army hospital, was removed for conduct unbecoming a Federal employee after he inappropriately disclosed a patient’s personal and health-related information to unauthorized individuals. Several of his claims were dismissed because more than two years had passed between his disclosures and the adverse personnel action for which he requested relief. There is a wealth of case law on the knowledge-timing aspect of whistleblower cases: Costello v. MSPB, 182 F.3d 1372, 1377 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (“A two-year gap between the disclosures and the allegedly retaliatory action is too long an interval to justify an inference of cause and effect between the two . . . .”); Salinas v. Army, 94 MSPR 54, 59 (2003) (the disclosure and the allegedly retaliatory act two years later were “too remote in time” for a reasonable person to conclude that the disclosure was a contributing factor to the action taken).
These can be confusing and complicated subjects, and not every personnel action gives the employee the right to file an IRA. For more on OAAs, IRAs, whistleblowing, and related topics, join us virtually for MSPB Law Week, March 28-April 1. Hopkins@FELTG.com