By William Wiley

If you’ve never made a mistake in this business of federal employment law, you either just started work last week, or you are not being aggressive enough. We all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them. Sadly, too many agencies make mistakes that have been made for over a quarter of a century without seeming to have learned that they were mistakes to be avoided. Let’s deconstruct a recent adverse MSPB decision and hope that we FELTGers can learn from it.

Rosario-Fabregas v. Army, NY-0752-13-0142-I-2 (2016)(NP)

Action on appeal: Removal, GS-12 Biologist

Judge’s decision: Mitigate to a 30-day suspension

Board’s decision: Affirm the judge’s mitigation

Charge 1. Conduct Unbecoming: The employee edited letters on behalf of outside organizations with interests contrary to those of the federal government (five specifications).

Board’s Decision: Although the agency proved that the appellant edited letters for outside organizations, for four of the five specifications it did not prove that those organizations maintained interests contrary to those of any federal agency; e.g., the deciding official did not identify any interests he believed were contrary to those of the federal government. Therefore, one specification (and thereby the charge) affirmed.

Charge 2.  Insubordination:  The agency determined that a private organization did not need a permit for some act within the agency’s jurisdiction. The appellant voiced his conclusion that indeed a permit was required. The second level supervisor reconsidered the no-permit determination and concluded that it was correct. The appellant maintained his disagreement with that conclusion. When directed to issue the no-permit finding, the appellant “still maintained his original position” and was “openly antagonistic and disregarded the decision-making authority of his chain of command.”

Board’s Decision:  A charge of insubordination requires the agency to prove that the employee willfully disobeyed an order. The appellant testified that he complied with the order to issue the no-permit-required letter to the private organization. The deciding official had no personal knowledge as to whether the letter was issued. The proposal letter suggested that it was not issued, but the proposing official did not testify. Therefore, the charge fails. Being antagonistic is not being insubordinate.

Charge 3:  Inappropriate use of official time (five specifications).

Board’s Decision:  The editing of the letters at issue were not a responsibility specified in the employee’s position description. Therefore, all five specifications were sustained.

Charge 4:  Inappropriate use of government property (five specifications)

Board’s Decision:  The editing of the letters at issue on a government computer were not a responsibility specified in the employee’s position description. Therefore, all five specifications were sustained.

Summary:

  • The removal was based on four charges, three which had five specifications (4C + 15S).
  • The Board affirmed five specifications to support each of two charges, one specification in the other multi-specification charge, and set aside the Insubordination charge that had no specifications (3C + 11S).

Penalty factors warranting mitigation:

  • Not all specifications were affirmed.
  • The most serious charge, insubordination, was not affirmed.
  • The employee had not been informed of any specific rule that prohibited the editing of letters like the ones at issue here.
  • Letter editing was commonplace within the agency.
  • Although adverse notoriety was claimed by the deciding official to be possible, the actual notoriety relative to the letter editing was positive.
  • Although a lack of rehabilitation potential was claimed by the deciding official, the appellant was on record as saying, “I give my word of honor as a man that I would not correct any other letter for anybody else and that I would not argue about regulatory processes with my fellow staff. I would avoid any type of conflict, no matter its complexity.”

Learning points we have been making in our FELTG training for 15 years that, had the agency applied them, would have caused the removal to be upheld;

  • The fewer the charges and specifications, the better. We teach SHORT and SPECIFIC when it comes to discipline. That’s because, as happened here, the more the agency charges, the more the agency is required to prove. If the agency starts losing charges or specifications on appeal, the more likely it is that MSPB will set aside a removal.
  • Every element of a labeled end charge MUST be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. When the agency charged “Insubordination,” it obligated itself to prove that the order was not obeyed. Although it proved that it was mad at the employee for being cantankerous, it neglected to enter into evidence that the employee did not obey an order.
  • There are five elements to every removal action. The first one is that the agency must prove the existence of a rule, and the second one is that it must prove the employee was informed of the rule. Rules that are not enforced cease to be rules as an employee is reasonable to conclude that the agency did not intend to enforce its rule. Here, the agency failed to enter evidence to show that the employee had been told of a rule not to edit letters, and it was commonplace for letters to be edited.
  • Statements of fact in a Douglas factor analysis (the penalty defense explanation) MUST be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. When an agency claims potential bad publicity and a lack of rehabilitation in the face of good publicity and a positive indicator of rehabilitation, it is going to lose those claims for a lack of evidence.

Fun Facts:

  1. The Appellant won his appeal on his own, without a lawyer or other assistant.
  2. The Appellant won without requesting a second hearing, precluding the agency from introducing testimonial evidence.
  3. This decision was effectively a re-litigation of a prior appeal by this employee. The prior appeal was of a previous removal that was based essentially on the same charges that were the basis in this appeal. The really fun fact is that the judge in the first appeal upheld the removal.

Come to our classes. Learn the law. Do not assume that because you are smart and right, your removal will be upheld on appeal. [email protected]

 

 

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