By Deborah Hopkins, March 26, 2019
Recently, we received a question from a reader about how far back in time an agency can go when it wants to discipline an employee.
We have a [hypothetical] case where we recently uncovered dozens of harassing comments (sexual) from an employee, spanning many years. How many years back can I reference specific examples in his proposed removal notice? The charge will be Conduct unbecoming a federal employee.
And here’s the FELTG response.
Thanks for the question. If you look at 5 USC § 7513 you’ll notice that in cases of adverse actions for misconduct there are no time limits for how far back an agency is allowed to reach, nor is there a requirement that an action be proposed within a particular time period. (Conversely, the law in performance cases under 5 USC § 4303 limits agencies to proposing removals for poor performance occurring during the one-year period prior to the proposal date.)
Because the law is silent on timeline, we have to look to the cases to see how the MSPB has viewed this issue. Excessive delays, especially those without explanation, can hurt the agency’s ability to successfully defend a disciplinary case and may result in the discipline being overturned. The longer an agency takes, the less convincing its stance that discipline was warranted. See Baldwin v. VA, 2008 MSPB 169 (if an agency’s delay in charging discipline is unreasonable, the charges may be dismissed). In these cases where there is not an explanation for the delay, the Board will consider how serious the agency actually considered the misconduct and may mitigate the penalty if it believes the delay undermines the argument for harm. Brown v. Treasury, 61 MSPR 484 (April 7, 1994). The Board will also consider whether the delay indicates an improper motivation to discipline the employee, such as reprisal for EEO or whistleblower activity. Id.
Sometimes agencies have good reason for delaying disciplinary action. The more detailed the explanation, the better for the agency; the discipline may be upheld even if a large amount of time has passed. The reasons for delay the Board has accepted (though not condoned) include management official waiting on receipt of an investigation report, and office restructuring and turnover that caused delays in all workplace actions. Cates v. USDA, 24 MSPR 468 (Nov. 20, 1984), aff’d, 776 F.2d 1065 (Fed. Cir. 1985). If criminal charges have been filed against an employee, this may also justify the agency choosing not to charge the conduct for some time. See Williams v. SSA, 586 F.3d 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (an eight-month delay after learning of the misconduct, which had occurred six years earlier, did not prevent the agency from disciplining the employee).
Not finding out about the conduct until recently is a darn good reason for not disciplining the employee until now; the key is not to wait too long, now that you know what happened.
An employee’s primary defense in one of these cases is an affirmative defense called laches. A party claiming laches must establish two elements: 1) the agency’s unreasonable delay in bringing a personnel action, and 2) resulting prejudice to the appellant. See Carr v. SSA, 185 F.3d 1318, (Fed. Cir. 1999). Prejudice to the appellant is shown if the appellant encounters increased and prejudicial difficulty in mounting a defense due to the delay, such as the loss of records, destruction of evidence, fading memories, and the unavailability of witnesses. Hoover v. Navy, 957 F.2d 861 (Fed. Cir. 1992).
While an employee may assert laches, you’ll want to look for evidence the employee actually remembers the misconduct which you’re charging. In Williams the appellant actually stipulated to the charge, which turned the light green for the agency to proceed with discipline. In Baldwin, the employee asserted he did not remember the conduct at issue, but other evidence including witness statements, indicated he did in fact know what the agency was talking about, and the Board said his assertions were “not…nonfrivilous.”
One other thing, on the “Conduct unbecoming a federal employee” charge: well done. It’s tempting in cases of egregious and harassing behavior, to charge an employee with Sexual Harassment. But that can be tough, because the bar to prove sexual harassment is quite high – and if you don’t prove all the elements of sexual harassment, your discipline cannot stand even if you have 15 sworn witness statements, documentary evidence, a video of the harassing conduct, and a confession by the harasser.
At FELTG, we’d suggest using the charge listing out all the harassing behavior as specifications rather than running them all together in a list as part of the generic charge. It would look like this.
Charge: “Conduct unbecoming a federal employee”
Specification A: On February 5, 2019, you referred to Coworker X as “a hot piece of ass.”
Specification B: On November 16, 2018, you slapped Coworker X on the rear end in the break room at lunchtime and said, “I want some of this.”
Specification C: On October 1, 2018, you told Coworker Y that you wanted to get Coworker X alone in the stairwell and have your “way with her once and for all.”
Specification D: On August 5, 2018, you told Coworker X if she did not have sex with you, you would tell the Agency Director she was conducting personal business on government time.
Be specific. Use dates, times, the employee’s actual words, and his actions – even if it’s uncomfortable to see it in writing. Go back as far as you need to, without overdoing it. Resist the urge to “spank” the employee, as Bill Wiley puts it, by listing every single bad thing he has ever done. Instead, either focus on the most recent or most egregious incidents and list those. If you lose a couple of specifications, no problem, but if you list 20 and only two stand, the Board may decide to mitigate your penalty. If you list two and both stand, the Board doesn’t have the authority to mitigate unless your penalty was unreasonable. See, e.g., Payne v. USPS, 72 MSPR 646 (1996).
As we say at the end of each training day, good luck out there. Hopkins@FELTG.com