Here’s an email that recently came across the FELTG desk:
Our agency has encountered an issue we haven’t seen, and were wondering if you might have some insight.
Typical for my agency’s chapter 43 removals is that the employee objects to not having access to their work documents, work laptop and programs, etc. (because they are put on admin/notice leave simultaneous with the issuance of the proposal) and thus isn’t able to offer a meaningful reply. We wonder if this is a common issue, and if perhaps there is an easy remedy that we’re overlooking.
Our proposals for chapter 43 removals include specific descriptions of each performance deficiency, with identifiers to specific instances (such as case numbers or project names and dates), but do not include or attach primary documents like screenshots or work files; the materials relied upon (outside of the proposal’s detailed description of the unacceptable performance) are usually the supervisor’s letter from the end of the opportunity period notifying the employee of the unacceptable performance, and if the timing lines up, the performance appraisal in which the supervisor rates the employee unacceptable.
So if an employee wanted to base their defense on individual case files, they would not have access to them through the materials relied upon; case files/documents/screengrabs aren’t provided with the proposal. We can’t anticipate every file an employee would want, so it’s hard to handle this prospectively, but options that have occurred to us are to (1) acknowledge in the decision that the employee objected to not having access, but did not actually identify or request any documents/files that would support a defense; or (2) when an employee objects to lack of access, the deciding official can ask the employee to identify what documents they need, and we can provide them and incorporate them into the materials relied upon. Option 1 may be risky (what if an administrative judge construes their objection to be a request that we failed to respond to?), but option 2 seems like it could delay the process and blow by mandated timelines.
What do you think? Is there a simple solution (or reassuring case) we’re missing, or a risk we’re misevaluating?
And here’s the FELTG response.
Well, we can’t give you specific advice on your situation, but we can speak to the principle in general. There’s a case we cover in MSPB Law Week (next offered virtually March 29 – April 2), that involves a misconduct removal but covers the same principle of access to documents during the notice period. In the event that an agency refuses to voluntarily make pertinent documents reasonably available prior to a Board proceeding, the Board’s rules provide for the issuance of orders compelling discovery by interrogatory or deposition, and for the issuance of subpoenas. See Kinsey v. USPS, 12 MSPR 503 (1982). This language “prior to a Board proceeding” assumes there is a Board appeal, which, of course, is not the case during the notice period.
The agency has no obligation, until the discovery phase, to produce any materials it did not directly rely upon in making the proposal. As long as the employee is given the material relied upon (and in a 432 action that’s entirely what happened during the performance demonstration period, PIP, or whatever your agency calls it now), the agency has fulfilled its obligation.
In another case we talk about during MSPB Law Week, the agency referenced shortcomings in medical care the employee provided to patients, but did not provide the employee the specific deficiencies or the records themselves that contained a description of the deficiencies. In reversing that removal, here’s what the Board said:
During the processing of the appeal, the appellant continued to express her confusion over the nature of the charge and attempted, without success, to discover the specific reason for her removal. For example, in “Appellant’s Motion to Compel Production,” the appellant’s attorney stated that the appellant was “charged with failure to maintain her clinical privileges, which, so far as she can determine, calls into question the quality of care she has given to inmates for the undetermined period of time.”
In “Appellant’s Prehearing Submissions,” the appellant’s attorney asserted that “there is complete lack of constitutional due process” because the appellant “never knew prior to the time she was fired, nor does she know now, what acts of omissions on her part are the reasons for her termination nor what standard she fell below.” Alexander v. DoJ, DE–0752-97-0313-I-1 (1998).
The principle involved in situations like these is as old as the Constitution: “Fundamental due process requires that notice of charges against an employee be sufficiently detailed to provide a meaningful opportunity to be heard. In analyzing a claim of denial of due process, the Board will examine, among other things, whether the lack of specificity in the notice affected the appellant detrimentally or caused her any surprise during the hearing.” Mason v. Navy, 70 MSPR 584, 586-87 (1996). In your case, if the proposal said something like: “In case XYZ, you failed to attach an appendix,” then, in our opinion, that would satisfy due process. However, if it says something like: “In case XYZ, you did not conform with our SOP,” then that would not satisfy due process.
A basic way to look at which documents have to be provided is to ask the proposing official what he personally looked at in drafting the proposal. Did he look at a screen shot? If so, then the safest approach would be to include the screen shot along with the proposal. If he did not, then there’s no right for the employee to have access at this stage. The good news is that the employee is not entitled at the proposal/response stage to a fishing expedition to look for exculpatory documents or other evidence. That’s what he gets during discovery. Hopkins@FELTG.com