By Deborah Hopkins, April 10, 2019

One of the long-standing principles we teach during MSPB Law Week (next offered in Dallas, TX, June 2-6) deals with how important it is to be mindful of the words used in disciplinary charges. Historically, if all of an agency’s charges are sustained, then the MSPB grants deference to the agency’s penalty selection unless the penalty is outside the bounds of reasonableness. See, e.g., Payne v. USPS, 72 MSPR 646 (1996). But if the agency loses even one charge, the agency loses the presumption of penalty deference and the MSPB has more room to step in and mitigate the penalty. See LaChance v. Devall, 178 F.3d 1246 (Fed. Cir. 1999).

One of the tendencies we warn agencies against is what my colleague Bill Wiley calls “spanking the employee,” otherwise known as piling on charges. You might have an employee who has done a bunch of bad things, but the danger in piling on charges is that if you lose even one, you could lose your penalty. (Hint: One way to avoid this is to include in the decision letter a statement that says any one of the charges, standing alone, would be enough to warrant the selected penalty. See LaChance, above.) So, it’s important to be mindful of the charges and to choose your best two or three, rather than to charge 10 or 20 things and risk losing a few.

Unless you’re covered by the new VA law, that is.

Under the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 (38 USC § 714), the MSPB does not have the authority to mitigate the VA’s penalty, as long as the agency can show the employee might have engaged in the misconduct. That’s right, might have. Under this law, the VA must only show substantial evidence (not preponderance like all the other agencies must show) that the employee engaged in misconduct in order to have a charge upheld. The regulatory definition for substantial evidence in federal personnel actions is “evidence a reasonable person might accept [not would accept] to support a conclusion even though others may disagree. [Emphasis added.] 5 CFR 1201.56(c)(1); 5 CFR 1201.4(p).

So if you work for the VA and you lose charges, you don’t have to worry. As long as even one charge stands, your penalty stands. To drive that point home, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit just issued a non-precedential decision in what we believe is its very first decision under the new VA law, Hairston v. VA, No. 2018-2053 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 8, 2019).

In this case the appellant, a housekeeping aid, was removed for two acts of misconduct:

  • Charge 1: Conduct unbecoming of a federal employee (kissing a nurse without her permission)
  • Charge 2: Failure to follow instructions (for visiting a ward he was ordered to stay away from)

The MSPB AJ sustained Charge 1, but did not find substantial evidence on Charge 2. Normally, this is where an agency’s penalty determination would be scrutinized – but because the agency is the VA, the AJ did not have the authority to mitigate the penalty, so he upheld the removal. See 38 USC § 714(d)(2)(A)-(B).

The appellant in this case did not file a petition for review to the MSPB (probably because they lack a quorum and he didn’t want to wait at least three years to get a decision back). After a month, the administrative judge’s initial decision became the final decision, and then the appellant filed a petition for review with the Federal Circuit, which has jurisdiction under 28 USC § 1295(a)(9). (Did you even know that an appellant can skip the PFR process and go right to the Federal Circuit? It’s been happening more lately since the MSPB is currently non-functioning at the PFR level.)

The scope of review in an appeal from the Board is limited by statute and the Federal Circuit must affirm the Board’s decision unless they find it to be:

“(1) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law; (2) obtained without procedures required by law, rule, or regulation having been followed; or (3) unsupported by substantial evidence.” 5 U.S.C. § 7703(c); see Kahn v. Dep’t of Justice, 618 F.3d 1306, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2010).

Under the substantial evidence standard, this court reverses the Board’s decision only “if it is not supported by ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Haebe v. Dep’t of Justice, 288 F.3d 1288, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (quoting Brewer v. U.S. Postal Serv., 647 F.2d 1093, 1096 (Ct. Cl. 1981)).

The decision is unremarkable in the Federal Circuit upheld the MSPB’s decision and affirmed the removal, as it does over 90% of the time. But it’s noteworthy because it’s the first decision under the VA’s new law, and it tells us that our read of the law on penalty mitigation is absolutely what we thought it was. Whether you agree or disagree with the application of the law, you can fire an employee at the VA if he might have broken a rule – and the Federal Circuit can’t step in.

If you’re not covered under this VA law, though, you’ll want to be extra careful when drafting charges. Join me for a webinar on this very topic July 11 called Words Matter: Drafting Defensible Charges in Misconduct Cases. [email protected].

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