By Deborah Hopkins, July 12, 2021

A few weeks ago, my colleague and FELTG Founding Father Bill Wiley drew my attention to a Federal Circuit decision that gave the Federal employment law world an important distinction in legal definitions. The case involved an IRS agent who disclosed confidential taxpayer information, including personally identifiable information (PII), to an unauthorized person for her own benefit. The unauthorized person was her attorney, and the information was disclosed as the attorney was preparing a response to a proposed suspension for “displaying discourteous and unprofessional conduct and for failing to follow managerial directives.”

The IRS removed the employee for “intentionally disclosing taxpayer information to an unauthorized person” and the MSPB AJ upheld her removal, agreeing with the agency that the misconduct was severe because “taxpayer privacy is ‘sacrosanct.’” In addition, the employee had received training on the importance of keeping taxpayer PII private, did not redact any PII before sending the information to her attorney, and did not receive permission from the agency to disclose the information.

She appealed her removal to the Federal Circuit. While acknowledging the disclosure of taxpayer PII was improper, she argued on appeal that removal was too harsh because “[t]he penalty imposed was that for willful disclosure, rather than negligent disclosure.”

Keep in mind, the charge was “intentionally disclosing taxpayer information to an unauthorized person.”

The Federal Circuit did not agree with her argument, but rather agreed with the MSPB that her “removal was properly predicated on her intention to disclose the information to her attorney and did not depend on whether she knew that the disclosure was wrong.” Therefore, it was not improper for the IRS “to consider such intentionality as aggravating.”

Now the fun part – the discussion on the use of the words willful and intentional. The court said that in the petition for review, the employee improperly referred to being charged with “willful disclosure” when her actions were actually charged as intentional. The court said these two words are sometimes used interchangeably but shouldn’t be. And then they told us why:

  • An intentional action is one that an employee commits on purpose, not negligently. It is not a requirement that the employee know the action is illegal, if the agency can show the employee’s intent was to commit the action at issue.
  • A willful action is different; it is an action an employee commits on purpose with knowledge that the act is prohibited. If there is no evidence the employee knew the action was prohibited, the misconduct is not willful, but may be intentional.

The IRS employee acted intentionally when she provided taxpayer information to her attorney. The agency did not charge her with willful disclosure and, therefore, was not required to prove that she specifically knew the act was prohibited by law. The employment law nerd in me just loves this kind of stuff. If you’d like to read the case yourself, it’s Vestal v. Treasury, Fed. Cir. No. 2020-1771 (Jun. 14, 2021). And for more fun discussions on disciplinary charges, join FELTG for the virtual training program Understanding Misconduct: Disciplinary Charges and Penalties, held on July 26 as part of our weeklong program The Post-Pandemic Federal Workplace: Managing Accountability and EEO Challenges. [email protected]

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