By Deborah Hopkins, June 13, 2022

The MSPB is operating on all levels once again, now that the third and final nominee, Cathy Harris, was sworn in at the beginning of the month. There have, as of this writing, only been 15 precedential decisions issued by the new Board, but we’ve seen dozens of non-precedential (NP) decisions in the past three months.

According to MSPB:

“A non-precedential order is one that the Board has determined does not add significantly to the body of MSPB case law. Parties may cite non-precedential orders, but such orders have no precedential value; the Board and administrative judges are not required to follow or distinguish them in any future decisions. In contrast, a precedential decision issued as an Opinion and Order has been identified by the Board as significantly contributing to the Board’s case law.” See 5 C.F.R. § 1201.117(c).

Despite their NP status, I have found some new lessons in these decisions. One such case that seems consequential to me is Purifoy v. VA, CH-0752-14-0185-M-1 (May 16, 2022)(NP). Take a look at this procedural history:

  • Employee was fired for AWOL (October 2013)
  • AJ mitigated the removal to a 40-day suspension (November 2014)
  • On PFR, the MSPB reinstated the removal (June 2015)
  • On appeal, the Federal Circuit remanded the case back to the MSPB for an independent Douglas analysis (October 2016)
  • Remand goes in the pile that would eventually become a 3,600+-case backlog, and eventually MSPB’s O & O reinstated the removal (May 2022)

If the second to last bullet point made you pause, you aren’t the only one. Ever since the MSPB started operating in 1979, the discipline process has worked like this:

  1. The agency drafts the charge and selects the penalty.
  2. The Board reviews the agency’s penalty determination for reasonableness.

I can’t recall a time when the Federal Circuit ordered the Board to do its own penalty assessment. (That’s not to say it hasn’t happened – but if it has, I don’t recall. And this is certainly a first for THIS Board.) As we have taught in MSPB Law Week for 20-plus years, the Board must give due weight to the agency’s discretion in exercising the managerial function of maintaining employee discipline and efficiency. The Board’s function is not to displace management’s responsibility but to assure that managerial judgment has been properly exercised within the tolerable limits of reasonableness.

So here we are. A bit more on the facts of this case. The employee, Lamonte Purifoy, was employed by DVA as a WG-2 Housekeeping Aid. He was jailed for six months due to drug use, and the VA fired him based on two charges:

  1. Two days of AWOL
  2. Six subsequent months of AWOL while in jail

On appeal, the AJ held that only 38 days of Charge 2 warranted AWOL. As the severity of the Charge 2 was reduced and because the AJ believed the employee showed a potential for rehabilitation, the AJ mitigated the removal to a 40-day suspension. On PFR the MSPB reversed the AJ’s mitigation and reinstated the removal, as it found the appellant did not demonstrate a high degree of rehabilitation potential.

Upon its review of the case the Federal Circuit decided that the Board members erred by not evaluating Douglas factor 12: “The adequacy and effectiveness of alternative sanctions to deter such conduct in the future,” although the AJ had done so, thus the basis of the remand.

In its assessment on remand, the Board looked at the Proposing Official’s testimony which said that he would object to the appellant returning to the workplace because of the negative precedent such an action would set. In addition, the Board was compelled by the Deciding Official’s testimony about deterring similar misconduct by other employees, and the message that imposing a lesser penalty would send. Therefore, this factor supported reinstating the removal penalty.

I talked with Bill Wiley, one of FELTG’s Founding Fathers, about this case and he had some insight about the Board’s decision and its assessment of Douglas factor 12: “When defending a removal penalty, be sure to state what harm would occur if the employee was returned to or remained in the workplace. Often, it can be said truthfully that anything less than removal would send a negative message to other employees. If the employee was disruptive in the workplace before removal, it would be reasonable to predict he would be disruptive if he was reinstated or retained.”

The Board also weighed in on the other Douglas factors. So, while Purifoy is an NP case, it gives us factor-by-factor information on how this new Board views the Douglas assessment. And if you understand the Board’s reasoning in Purifoy, you will be able to better defend the agency’s penalty selection for years into the future.

For more on this and other lessons from the Board, join FELTG for the virtual training Back on Board: Keeping Up with the New MSPB, July 20. [email protected]

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