By Deborah Hopkins, February 14, 2018
Last month we discussed charges that carry an element of intent. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out here: https://feltg.com/the-dangers-of-charging-intent/. As a reminder, if a charge includes an element of intent, the intent must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Usually we don’t have a confession showing intent, so we look at circumstantial evidence and consider the totality of the circumstances. Naekel v. Transportation, 782 F.2d 975, 978 (Fed. Cir. 1986); Boo v. DHS, 122 MSPR 100 (2014).
This month we will be looking at two specific charges: threat and willful misconduct.
The lead case on threat is Metz v. Department of the Treasury, 780 F.2d 1001 (Fed. Cir. 1986). If you haven’t read it, you really should. As a quick summary, though, Mr. Metz was an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and he was not happy with his performance evaluation: he received an annual rating of “excellent” but believed he deserved an “outstanding,” and he said he would harm himself and others. Two of Metz’s coworkers also reported that they heard Metz say he was going to kill his supervisors.
Threats of harm against a government supervisor are taken seriously, though sometimes it is difficult for an agency to determine if a threat actually has been made, or if a person is just talking out of frustration or anger. In reviewing removals based on threat charges, MSPB must use “the connotation which a reasonable person would give to the words.” Meehan v. USPS, 718 F.2d 1069, 1075 (Fed. Cir. 1983). In other words, look carefully at the circumstances.
Metz sets out five factors to help determine whether a threat has been made:
- The listener’s reaction;
- The listener’s apprehension of harm;
- The speaker’s intent;
- Any conditional nature of the statements; and
- The attendant circumstances.
Intent evidence shaky? Consider another charge for the misconduct. Discipline has been upheld for a charge of “Making statements that caused anxiety and disruption in the workplace,” McCarty v. Navy, 95 FMSR 5122 (1995), and charging “inappropriate conduct,” but bringing intent evidence into the Douglas analysis as justification of a more severe penalty, Brough v. Commerce, 119 MSPR 118 (2013).
So, what the heck is this charge “willful misconduct”? It’s a deliberate and intentional (not careless or heedless) disobedience of a lawful order. So if you’ve got intent evidence that the disobedience was intentional, go forth and charge. However, as always when dealing with intent, proceed with caution.
The line between careless and willful should not be ignored. We often see employee injuries and workers’ compensation claims in cases of willful misconduct, and when an employee’s willful misconduct leads to his injury, his actions take him out of the performance of duty. I.A. and USPS, No. 15-1913 (ECAB 2016). For example, a USPS employee drove a GOV without a seatbelt and entered an intersection with the vehicle’s passenger-side door open. These behaviors were not willful misconduct but rather were lapses of judgment, because they did not exhibit wanton or reckless disregard of probable injurious consequences. L.R. and USPS, No. 08-84 (ECAB 2008). Because there was no evidence of premeditation…or intentional wrongdoing, or that the employee knew his behavior was likely to result in serious injury, his claim was not precluded under workers’ comp. Id.
As we said last month, and will say a thousand more times, the bottom line in labeled charges that contain an intent element: be sure you have a preponderance of the evidence on intent, because if you don’t you will lose your whole case, and Mx Misconduct will be coming back to work for you. Hopkins@FELTG.com