By Deborah Hopkins, May 31, 2022

When an employee is too ill to come to work on a regular basis, it puts the agency in a difficult position: wanting to work with the employee and grant leave in hopes they will eventually recover, but also needing someone to complete the job tasks on a regular basis. In some cases, the amount of leave the agency grants becomes problematic and the agency needs the employee to return to duty.

Generally, an agency cannot take an adverse action for approved absences – and that makes sense. After all, the agency grants the leave, or else the employee has an entitlement to the leave. However, an agency may remove an employee for excessive absence if the agency proves the Cook criteria, as identified in Cook v. Army, 18 M.S.P.R. 610 (1984):

  1. The employee was absent for compelling reasons beyond his control;
  2. The absences continued beyond a reasonable time and the agency warned the employee that an adverse action would be taken unless the employee became available for duty on a regular basis; and
  3. The position needed to be filled by an employee available for duty on a regular basis.

A recent MSPB decision, Robinette v. Army, AT-0752-16-0633-I-1 (May 11, 2022)(NP), reminds us the Cook criteria are requirements, not suggestions. The decision reinforces that the Board cannot uphold a removal if the agency does not comply with all three elements in the Cook criteria.

In Robinette, the agency issued the appellant a Notice of Leave Restriction on Feb. 17, 2015, which informed him that his chronic, unscheduled absences were considered excessive and negatively affected the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission.

On May 18, 2016, the agency issued a Notice of Proposed Removal for “excessive absenteeism,” which specified that from Feb. 21, 2015, through April 16, 2016, he was absent 939.3 hours out of a total of 2103.7 available duty hours (almost 45%). The agency removed the employee on June 24, 2016, and he filed an appeal to the MSPB.

In the initial decision, the administrative judge (AJ) found the agency’s action was properly predicated upon approved leave, including annual leave, sick leave, and Leave Without Pay, but that the Leave Restriction Letter did not meet the second element of the Cook criteria; it did not inform the employee his approved absences could lead to removal if he did not become available on a regular basis. So, the AJ reversed the removal.

On Petition for Review, the agency argued that it had suspended the employee in November 2014 and April 2015 for “failure to follow proper leave procedures” and that the statement in the decision letters “[y]ou are cautioned [that] any repetition of this or similar offenses may result in more severe disciplinary action against you” met element 2 of the Cook criteria. Because neither decision letter was part of the record, the Board refused to consider anything except the February 2015 Leave Restriction Letter, which the Board also found did not meet the second Cook requirement.

Excessive absence removals are highly technical. Reading this case reminded me of a VA case from a few years ago where the agency’s removal was reversed because the warning letter told the employee that if he did not return to work, he would be disciplined, but it did not say that continued absence on approved leave would warrant his removal. Miles v. DVA, CH-0752-14-0374-I-2 (May 17, 2016)(ID).

As we teach in all our classes, words matter. For more on this and other leave-related challenges, join us virtually for Absence, Leave Abuse & Medical Issues Week, June 13-17. [email protected]

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