By Deborah Hopkins, November 15, 2017

Here’s a note a reader recently sent:


I work in a federal agency but NOT in a federal building. We don’t have metal detectors – just a security person at a reception desk, who is sometimes there and sometimes not. I have never been bothered by working in a non-secure building until recent events in the media – most recently, a few days ago when a man shot and killed three coworkers, and injured two other, outside Baltimore. While we don’t know much yet about the shooter, I have to wonder if he had violent tendencies and whether this could have been stopped before it happened.

This leads me to my questions:

  1. Can a federal agency fire someone who shows violent tendencies in the workplace?
  2. If so, what should the charge be, and how much proof do we need?

Thanks for your help.

And here’s the FELTG response:

Thanks for your note. I’m sure you’ve heard us talk or write about the sad fact that over 400 people die at work every year at the hands of a co-worker. It’s a tough reality. Regarding your questions, let’s take them in order:

  1. Yes. If the employee has engaged in misconduct – broken a rule – you can propose removal if, in doing the Douglas analysis, you determine that the misconduct warrants removal. (If you’re at the VA, a new law means you don’t even have to do Douglas.)
  2. As far as proof, you’ll need a preponderance of the evidence – that it’s more likely than not – that the individual did whatever you charged him or her with. The charge you use will depend on the facts of the case. Is the individual assaulting people, threatening people, or destroying property? You want to make sure to select a charge that you can prove. (If you’re at the VA, you only need to prove the misconduct by substantial evidence.)

Here are a few case examples where removal for threatening or aggressive-type behavior was appropriate:

Charge: Unacceptable Conduct

A letter carrier’s removal was upheld after he used profanity toward a co-worker and punched the co-worker in the head. Davis v. USPS, 487 F. App’x 571 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (NP).

Charges: 1) Violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility; 2) Off-Duty Misconduct; 3) Unnecessary Display of a Weapon

A U.S. Deputy Marshal’s removal was upheld for an off-duty altercation. The Marshal had stopped his car in the middle of the street and was arguing with his girlfriend, and when two people he did not know told him to move his car so they could drive past, the Marshal “slapped” the driver’s car, and then pulled out his firearm and pointed it above the driver’s head. Rodriguez v. DOJ, NY-0752-10-0081-I-1 (2011) (NP)

Charges: 1) Creating a Disturbance, and 2) Insubordination

Removal was upheld where the appellant, a Legal Administrative Assistant, refused to comply with an agency police officer’s orders, started “flailing” his elbows, and injured two officers who were attempting to take him into custody. Sousa v. Army, 108 F.3d 1391 (February 11, 1997)

Charge: Threatening a Coworker with a Knife

Removal was upheld for an Army weapons explosives operator, who flipped out the blade of his pocket knife and told a coworker he would cut the buttons off her overalls. Despite his defense that he was joking, the coworker testified she felt threatened, and witnesses concurred. McGuire v. Army, 333 F. App’x 528 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (unpublished)

If an agency’s charge includes the word “threat,” it is wise to be sure a threat has actually been made. The MSPB looks to the Metz factors in analyzing charges of threat: 1) the listener’s reactions; 2) the listener’s apprehension of harm; 3) the speaker’s intent; 4) any conditional nature of the statements; 5) the attendant circumstances. Metz v. Treasury, 780 F.2d 1001 (Fed. Cir. 1986)

If any of the Metz factors are shaky, it’s probably best to frame the charge differently. Remember, too, if there’s an emergency situation, you can – and should – call 911.

If you need to know more about this all-too-important topic, join us for the 2018 webinar series Behavioral Health Issues in the Federal Workplace, or join us for the brand-new two-day program Handling Behavioral Health Issues and Threats of Violence in the Federal Workplace March 6-7 in Honolulu. [email protected]

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