By William Wiley, April 24, 2018
Civil service law issues seem to be all over the media these days: negotiating a tough union contract at Education, easing the firing rules at DVA, Hatch Act violations on the White House lawn. Things that used to be known only to those of us inside the business are now being discussed round-table on CNN. For once, we Federal employment law practitioners actually have a seat at the table.
But we don’t always get invited to dinner. Although our business is more frequently reported in the media, it’s not always accurately reported. Sometimes an article will be published that describes part of a situation, but fails to give a complete picture because someone didn’t understand civil service law. And that hurts us all. Such limited coverage by the media can leave the wrong impression in the mind of the reader.
Take, for example, an A-2 article published in the Washington Post on April 5: “Education chief Betsy DeVos asked whether leakers could be prosecuted,” subtitled “Internal report says lack of clear rules makes criminal charges difficult.”
Look, I never claim to be a criminal lawyer. Heck, I hardly claim to be a lawyer at all on most occasions. But I do seem to remember that criminal prosecutions are based on violations of law, not violations of agency rules. Violations of agency rules can result in administrative sanctions (e.g., firing). If an agency has a rule that an employee is supposed to be at his desk by 8:00, the employee receives an administrative sanction (e.g., Reprimand) when he reports to work late. He does not go to jail.
Of course, some agency rules are based directly on federal law. When that happens, the employee can be both criminally prosecuted and administratively sanctioned for a single incident. But those are two different procedures, based on two separate theories and two different burdens of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt vs. a preponderance of the evidence). So before I even start reading the article, the subtitle gives me pause.
Once into the body of the article, I see that it’s about a referral that senior leadership of the agency made to its OIG. The question presented by the referral appears to be whether there could be criminal sanctions for an employee who leaks information to the press about internal budget matters. The OIG response was reported as being that there would be challenges to criminal prosecution or taking significant administrative action against an employee-leaker because the agency has little written policy on how such information is handled.
Well, that’s not completely accurate.
First, we have to divide that answer into two separate sub-responses: criminal prosecution and administrative sanction. Indeed, there may be a significant challenge to a criminal prosecution. We need to find a law that is somehow dependent on the existence of an effectuating agency policy. As I claim no mastery of criminal law, I can’t say whether such a statute exists. However, I do know enough criminal law to acknowledge that the burden of proof in a criminal prosecution is the highest we have: beyond a reasonable doubt. So, indeed, perhaps there is a significant challenge related to leakers regarding criminal prosecution.
Not so for the other half of the response, that it would be challenging to take a significant administrative sanction against a leaker if there are no written policies. I may not know criminal law, but my middle name is “Significant-Administrative-Sanction.” And it is this part of the response that stops short of where it should have gone.
It is fundamental to disciplining a federal employee that there be a rule in place. That’s because we define misconduct as violation of a rule. Rules can come from written agency policy, guidance, and instructions. However, it is not a REQUIREMENT that the rule be memorialized in writing. An enforceable rule can be as simple as a supervisor saying to the employee, “Lock the office door when you leave.” We don’t need a door-locking written policy to sanction (e.g. discipline) an employee who subsequently leaves the door unlocked. Therefore, that part of the OIG response as it was reported in the Post that suggests that the defense of an administrative sanction is weakened because there is no written policy regarding leaking, is off the mark. Yes, we might like to have a written policy, but we certainly don’t need a written policy to sanction a leaker. If he has been told orally or informally in writing to keep the budget information private, and he discloses it to the press anyway, he can be disciplined just as severely as if the agency’s no-leak policy was posted on every official bulletin board.
Separately, it is well-established that an agency can enforce rules that it may never have told the employee about, but the employee should have known them anyway. These are sometimes known as “common sense” rules. As Deb often speaks about in our seminars, an employee who strips down naked at work can be disciplined even if the agency does not have a “Mandatory Clothing” policy on the books. It’s just common sense that you can’t do that.
As for what constitutes a common-sense rule in the situation in the Post’s article, we are fortunate to have a court decision squarely on point. About a dozen years ago, the Department of Interior fired an SES manager because that manager disclosed internal budget information to a Post reporter. In appeal of her removal, she argued that she could not be fired for doing something that no one ever told her not to do; i.e., there was no written agency policy nor oral instruction to her not to disclose that sort of information. In rejecting that argument, the court said, “Oh, give me a break. You were a senior manager of the agency. You should have known that disclosing internal budget deliberations was a no-no and that you should keep your sweet mouth shut.” Of course, the court said it more delicately than that, but you get the point. Chambers v. Interior, 515 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
So, we have two approaches to a Significant Administrative Action that do not depend on whether there is a written agency policy regarding the handling of budget information. A more fulsome response should have covered these options and noted that a Significant Administrative Sanction need be supported by only a preponderance of the evidence, thereby easier to support than a criminal prosecution.
And, I’m not finished criticizing.
The unauthorized release of internal budget information could quite possibly be related to a critical element in an employee’s performance plan. Find out who leaked the budget information to the press, conclude that such action warranted an Unacceptable rating on a single critical element, and the agency can initiate a PIP, an opportunity for the employee to demonstrate whether the leaker can go a whole year without again performing Unacceptably. If he fails, he can be fired for that future unacceptable performance event; e.g., the next leak. And that removal doesn’t even need to be supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Substantial evidence will do, a mere grain more than a scintilla, the lowest proof burden of all:
To sustain an action based on substantial evidence, there must be “more than a mere scintilla of evidence,” but a quantum “less than the weight of evidence” is all that is required. See Jones v. Department of Health & Human Services, 834 F.3d 1361, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
I have the greatest respect for OIG offices throughout government. The work they do is hard and sometimes underappreciated. And we never really know what has happened in this situation by reading a single article published in the media. At the same time, the principles above are well-established in civil service law, and learned by every attorney and HR specialist tested and certified through participation in the FELTG MSPB Law Week seminar.
Learn the law. Work hard to tell managers how to do something rather than why not to do something. We’re going to lose our civil service if we don’t do the best job possible when it comes to employee accountability.
Do this, and I promise not to try to practice criminal law. [email protected]