By William Wiley, May 17, 2017
Questions, we get questions. This one came to us after a recent webinar we presented involving due process rights:
My question involves an issue that can arise after the reply and involves due process/ex parte communication issues.
The FELTG newsletter had some excellent articles on this topic in 2014-2015. The scenario I find particularly troubling arose in 2013 in the Kolenc MSPB case. To simplify a bit, part of Kolenc’s charged misconduct was failure to pay a parking/traffic ticket. In his reply, Kolenc asserted the ticket was cancelled. The Deciding Official (D.O.) then called the Police Department to verify Kolenc’s bald assertion and learned the ticket had not been cancelled. The D.O. then indicated in his Final Decision that he determined the ticket had indeed not been cancelled and the lack of credibility Kolenc demonstrated in his bald assertion in his reply influenced his decision to proceed with removal.
My question is in this scenario what option does a D.O. have when the employee makes a bald assertion like this (i.e. does not include proof other than his assertion) that the ticket was actually cancelled? I understand the riskless scenario is for the D.O. to inform Kolenc in a “Ward Letter” what he found and give him 10 days to respond.
How much risk, however, would the D.O. and the Agency assume if they had not called the Police Department but declined to accept the employee’s bald assertion by itself, concluding that Kolenc needed to do more to establish the cancellation than offer his bald assertion in a written reply?
Our FELTG response follows. This questioner already knew the less-dangerous answer, but like most of us, is trying to find a way to be more efficient:
Thanks for your question. It’s conceivable that the police made a mistake when checking the employee’s records. It’s possible the employee has evidence that the ticket was cancelled. That’s why due process requires that we notify employees of facts on which we are relying prior to making a decision on a proposed removal, to give them a chance to defend themselves. In my world, an extra five days of pay is well-worth removing this potential due process violation from the case when it goes up on appeal.
When informing the employee of the new information in situations like this, I like to say something like, “In your oral response to the proposed removal, you claimed that the traffic ticket issued to you had been cancelled. Further investigation revealed that the XYZ police department’s records show that the ticket was not cancelled; see attached. You have seven days to respond to this evidence that the ticket was not cancelled and to the fact that you potentially made a significant error in your statement to me in your oral response.” Now the employee is on notice that a) there is evidence that the ticket was not cancelled, and b) that the DO will consider the employee’s lack of truthfulness when making his decision.
The alternative is for the DO to weigh the employee’s unsupported statement that the ticket was cancelled against whatever evidence there is already in the record that it was not cancelled. Perhaps there is no evidence that the ticket was not cancelled. Whatever the evidentiary balance, the supervisor could have said – without contacting the police department to verify one way or the other – “In your oral response, you claim that the traffic ticket was cancelled. However, you presented no evidence supporting your statement. Therefore, I have not considered your unsupported self-serving claim further.”
This latter approach saves you five days of pay. And it has to be based on the premise that the DO has no independent evidence of the non-cancellation of the ticket. However, it runs the risk of a judge disagreeing with the DO as to the evidentiary weight to be given to the employee’s possibly-uncontroverted statement. Separately, there is a possibility that on review, some judge may conclude that the assertion of a claim such as this in a response to a proposed removal requires that the DO investigate the claim prior to making a decision, see Whitmore v. DoL, 680 F.3d 1353 (Fed. Cir. 2012).
Were I making the decision between these two approaches, I would pay the extra salary and notify the employee of the new information. To me, the extra pay is well worth avoiding the possibilities of reversal on appeal by a judge who disagrees with my decision not to investigate and notify, plus it gives me the bonus misconduct to base the removal on, that the employee lied in his oral response.
Due process violations are dangerous. I am scared to death of them. I take no chances if there is a way I can avoid them. A new notice and response time will cost the agency, but that cost is a price I feel is worth the expense. Hope this helps. [email protected]