By William Wiley
We’ve all been frustrated at one time or another with the help (or non-help) we’ve received from an unfriendly Information Technology specialist, some of which live half-way around the globe. Did you ever slam down the phone and wish you could just fire them? Well then, you’ll be interested in the following evidence in a removal of a close-by IT specialist for discourteous behavior, an employee who had previously been suspended for 7 days (for similar discourtesy), then 14 days for failing to follow orders.
|Specification||Proof In Support of||Proof Against||Board Ruling|
|1.1. Appellant called a customer a jerk.||Customer testified that appellant said he was “acting like a jerk” or “words to that effect.”||Appellant denied using the word ‘jerk.”||The customer’s testimony was equivocal. Although customer’s testimony that appellant was “rude” was not equivocal, that was not the charge. NOT SUSTAINED.|
|1.2. Appellant was loud and discourteous to a customer, a senior agency manager.||Customer testified that appellant was loud, belligerent, used hand gestures, leaned forward, and conveyed an attitude she was unwilling to provide assistance.||Appellant denied being discourteous or loud.||Although perhaps unpleasant, it is debatable whether appellant’s behavior rose to the level of discourteous. NOT SUSTAINED.|
|2.2. Appellant got in the face of a coworker with a customer and said animatedly, “Are you monitoring me now, too?”||The coworker testified that the interaction occurred as charged.||There were tensions in the workplace.||Tensions go to penalty, not to whether misconduct occurred. SUSTAINED.|
|2.3. Appellant was routinely discourteous, talked bad about other elements of the organization, was a bully that liked to intimidate others, and treated people in a humiliating manner.||A customer stated the facts in the charge in a sworn statement.||The interactions were confrontational, based on organizational friction, but not discourteous.||As there was no testimony or other evidence to support these generalized accusations, NOT SUSTAINED.|
|2.5. Appellant was rude and disrespectful toward her former supervisor by yelling at him across a parking lot, “Don’t you ever come into my workplace again.”||The former supervisor stated the facts in the charge in a sworn statement.||Appellant denied yelling or making the statement in the specification.||Live testimony trumps a sworn written statement. NOT SUSTAINED.|
Agencies don’t often lose MSPB appeals because of a failure to prove specifications. Usually, agency losses can be attributed not to a lack of charge proof, but to a procedural screw-up: due process violation, poorly drafted charge, weak Douglas analysis. This case is an exception because most of the specifications failed completely. Of the original three charges each with up to seven specifications, the Board sustained only one specification and mitigated the removal to a five-day suspension. Ballard-Collins v. Army, SF-0752-13-0617-I-1 (2016)(NP).
As for the Board’s evidentiary findings, we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think the agency proved by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the appellant was discourteous. The evidence is a classic he-said/she-said. For each specification considered on PFR, the appellant simply denied the charge, and a customer or co-worker supported the charge by sworn testimony or affidavit. In all but one specification, the Board decided to believe the appellant, not the agency witnesses.
As for us practitioners, there are a few basic takeaways worthy of note:
- The agency should not have relied on written statements as proof in the face of the appellant’s contrary live testimony. Almost every time, the Board will believe in-person sworn testimony over written affidavits.
- SPECIFICITY! We’ve taught for 15 years that charges and specifications need to be short and specific. Generalized charges hardly ever withstand Board review. Don’t use them.
- Charge what you can prove. If you can prove rude behavior, charge rude behavior. Don’t try to prove “discourtesy” by submitting evidence of “rudeness.” The Board is a nit-picky old bitty when it comes to the wording of a specification.
Some readers will, no doubt, conclude that the Board made a mistake in the weighing of the evidence. Our reality is that we cannot always be sure of how a judge will evaluate our attempt to prove the charges. However, there are strategic steps we can take to put our case in the best light possible. Understanding and using some of the basic principles of Board practice gives us a better chance of walking away with a winner at the end of an appeal. No guarantees, just an improvement in the odds. Wiley@FELTG.com