By William Wiley, March 28, 2017
Oh, boy. Another great issue raised by a regular-reader who’s just trying to do the right thing:
I am an L/ER specialist who provides advice and guidance to managers on disciplinary and adverse actions, including removals. It seems like we put forth a lot of time and effort into removing federal employees who then file MSPB appeals. Then, management ends up settling for a few thousand dollars and a voluntary resignation with the employee. There is also a misconception, in my opinion, that employees who are behaving badly cannot be touched if they file a claim of discrimination. Managers seem to be gun shy once an employee claims discrimination. There has got to be a better way!
And here’s our FELTG response to this excellent issue:
Dear Loyal Reader,
You have raised an issue that highlights a significant change in the business of federal employment law. In our early days under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, a successful practitioner was seen as someone who built a good case, then litigated the devil out of it by representing the agency (or union) in deposition, hearing, and appeal, never giving an inch and fighting to the bitter end to establish not only victory, but righteousness. Some went so far as to bully and threaten their opposite party, all while strictly following procedure, with the ultimate goal of eventually being declared the “winner.”
You would have thought we were trying to get a bill through Congress, or something. 🙂
Today, for the serious practitioner in federal employment law, whether Human Resources professional, union official, or attorney, we have come to figure out that we are all better off, and the country the stronger for it, when we resolve workplace disputes without going through litigation. When you consider the resource expenditure that is necessary to defend a management action through EEOC, MSPB, OSC, FLRA, or in arbitration (into six figures for a successful management defense before MSPB), you must admit that something that achieves the same result but costs you less is a better deal for America.
And as every seasoned attorney and Human Resources professional knows, that magical cheap tool, the one that guarantees success every time without the inherent risk of litigation, is called a “Last Chance Agreement” (LCA). I cut my first one in 1979 and helped set another one last fall. In between, I’ve seen hundreds, either personally or in cases on appeal to MSPB where I was Chief Counsel to the Chairman during the ’90s. Here’s how they work:
Step 1. The supervisor initiates the removal process. Perhaps it’s placing the employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Or, maybe it’s a proposed removal for serious or repeated misconduct. MSPB recently reported that only about one in five removals that are initiated ever work their way to a decision by MSPB on appeal. Over at EEOC, maybe 1 in 50 formal complaints ever sees a judge. That’s because smart agency practitioners have learned the benefit of cutting a deal, with the ultimate deal being a Last Rites Agreement.
Step 2. The practitioner, acting on behalf of the agency, offers the employee something in exchange for the employee’s promise to leave voluntarily. You see, the reason we initiate PIPs and propose removals is to get bad employees out of the workplace. If we can accomplish that goal without litigation, the citizens and their government are the beneficiaries.
Step 3. If the employee accepts the offer, or through negotiation develops an offer that is acceptable although different from the original offer, the parties draft and sign an agreement. Those of you with the greatest and most amazing textbook in our field, UnCivil Servant, will find a sample format in the back entitled “Agency Supported Job Search Agreement.” The agency wants to be sure that it gives something to the employee in exchange for the employee agreeing to leave voluntarily without an appeal. That exchange of consideration is how a contract is made. Agencies that do not give anything have a void contract, according to both EEOC and MSPB. A common ironclad consideration in a Last Chance Agreement is for the agency to place the employee on administrative leave for some period of time in exchange for the employee quitting.
And that’s it. Effective immediately, reversible only if the employee was confused (or lied to) about some underlying fact…an enforceable contract with low cost and immediate results. Unfortunately, I’ve run into some attendees in our FELTG seminars who never heard of this wonderful accountability tool. I once had an attorney tell me that administrative leave was not adequate consideration to form a binding contract. Grrrr. Apparently that individual did not pay attention in his Contracts class in law school.
Another time, a Human Resources specialist asked why such an agreement was not a “constructive discharge.” I was forgiving of the questioner as she had been in the business only a few months and had not had the opportunity to read the case law or be trained before she came to our seminar. A similar question from someone who claimed to be experienced in our work would give me serious pause. We’ve had case law since the ’60s (originally from the old Claims Court) that finds that it is perfectly legal to give a federal employee a difficult choice to make among distasteful options. A constructive discharge occurs only when the employee is given incorrect information, or no option but to resign at the time the agreement is signed.
Finally, on occasion I have run into an uninformed inexperienced practitioner who for some reason thinks that the only way to deal with a problem employee is through the standard regulations found in 5 CFR 752 or 432. “We’ve always done it that way. Why break with tradition? The old processes have worked before.” When I hear that, I picture the person wearing hundred-year-old clothing, standing on the street corner, grumbling to anyone who will listen about “those newfangled horseless carriages. What’s wrong with a horse and buggy? I don’t really mind how slow they are, or how expensive they are to care for – and stepping around all that horse poop is not as much of a problem as people say it is.”
Bonus inside scoop: EEOC and MSPB LOVE these sorts of agreements. Legally speaking, they will say in public how these resolutions support mutual dealing with each side realizing the value in giving and taking without litigation. Practically speaking, and perhaps not-so-in-public, the good folks at the oversight agencies realize that a complaint or appeal settled without adjudication is one less hearing they have to hold and at least one less decision they have to produce; in other words, one additional chance for them to get home in time to have dinner with the kids or watch The World Series of Cage Fighting. You will not find a case decision in any oversight forum that holds that the offer of a bona fide last chance agreement – one based on fact and with consideration – has been held to be reprisal.
And, Lordy, I hope I never see an email from an agency attorney or Human Resources professional that recommends that a bona fide Last Rites Agreement NOT be offered out of fear that the EEO-complaining-employee will file a reprisal complaint. Legally, that would be what we agency lawyers like to call “per se retaliation.” Euphemistically, that would be what our colleagues who work the other side of the table, the folks who represent employees, like to call “the smoking gun.”
In my experience, after they call “the smoking gun,” they next call the Tesla dealer and say, “I’ll be ordering the upgrade model with ludicrous speed.”
If you are not utilizing Last Rites Agreements in your practice, you are failing to deploy one of the most versatile, valuable and efficient tools we have in the field of federal employment law. If you do not know enough to appreciate their value, read the case law. Attend our seminars. Talk with others who have used them successfully. Buy the UnCivil Servant textbook that walks you through the process. There is no excuse for not understanding how to avoid the death-march of EEO litigation with this alternative.
Besides, eventually you’re going to get awfully tired of stepping around all those smelly old horse droppings.
Best of luck. Wiley@FELTG.com