By Deborah J. Hopkins, March 15, 2023

A recent MSPB nonprecedential decision has me scratching my head, as the outcome appears to go against over 40 years of case precedent. I wrote about the facts of the case in a previous newsletter article, so if you’d like the specific details please check that out. A quick recap though: The agency removed an employee based on three charges: (1) lack of candor; (2) disregard of directive; and (3) unauthorized absence. The MSPB only sustained charge 2, disregard of directive, because the appellant did not follow appropriate leave request procedures.

Because the agency only proved one of three charges, the Board mitigated the removal to a 7-day suspension. That may not sound odd to you, but here’s where I’m stuck: if you look at Board’s view of the Douglas factors analysis on pages 9-10 in the case, the appellant “was previously reprimanded and served a 3-day suspension for failure to follow the agency’s leave procedures.”

A principle that has been around for longer than the Civil Service Reform Act, progressive discipline stands for the proposition that for minor misconduct, Federal employees are generally given a “three strikes and you’re out” opportunity to learn from conduct-based mistakes. Progressive discipline, which we’ll discuss in more detail during MSPB Law Week March 27-31, typically looks like this:

  • First offense of misconduct: Reprimand
  • Second offense of misconduct: Suspension of 1-14 calendar days
  • Third offense of misconduct: Removal

Progressive discipline is not mandatory, most recently confirmed during OPM’s discussion of its updated regulations at 5 CFR §752.202.

There are times agencies remove an employee for a first offense (see, e.g., Pinegar v. FEC, 2007 MSPB 140), and there are times they give more than three strikes – sometimes a lot more (see, e.g., Blank v. Army, 85 MSPR 443 (2000)). And that is absolutely up to the agency. But past discipline has almost always been a significant aggravating factor, and for over four decades the Board has generally upheld removals for a third offense of any misconduct. See, e.g., Grubb v. DOI, 96 MSPR 361 (2004).

If the Board were to follow its own precedent in the current case, the agency should have received penalty deference and the Board should have upheld the removal. Instead, the Board found other factors to be mitigating:

  • The appellant worked for the agency for six years and did not have any performance problems during that time.
  • The appellant was not a supervisor.
  • The appellant contacted the agency “to inform his supervisor that he would be absent, albeit not in the way in which he was instructed.”
  • The appellant claimed he and his wife were having relationship troubles.
  • The appellant claimed he was experiencing pain because of a disability.
  • The agency’s table of penalties recommended a “5-day suspension to removal for a third offense of failure to request leave according to established procedures.”

If removal was appropriate according to the table of penalties, why did the Board mitigate?

I will admit, proving only one specification of one charge does make one consider whether the penalty is unreasonable; in essence the agency only proved a third of its case. That said, because of the weight past discipline usually holds, I am a little surprised the Board did not defer to the agency’s penalty. I wonder if the outcome would have been different if there was language in the decision letter that any charge standing alone would warrant removal? See, e.g., Sheiman v. Treasury, SF-0752-15-0372-I-2 (May 24, 2022)(NP).

This is one of the few cases under this Board where a Member dissented from the majority; Tristan Leavitt noted a dissent but without opinion, so it’s anyone’s guess as to why. Perhaps it’s for the very reason outlined above. Ortiz v. USAF, DE-0752-22-0062-I-1 (Jan. 25, 2023)(NP).

At first I was thinking this might be an outlier, but two subsequent cases have seen the same mitigation despite of past progressive discipline: Spivey v. Treasury (IRS), CH-0752-16-0318-I-1 (Feb. 15, 2023 )(NP) and Williams v. HHS, DC-0752-16-0558-I-1 (Feb. 25, 2023)(NP). Read on for Bill Wiley’s take on these cases and on why agencies discipline at all. [email protected]

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