By Deborah J. Hopkins, May 16, 2023

As we work our way through all the cases coming out of MSPB’s backlog, some catch our attention more than others, including Lott v. Army, SF-0752-16-0490-I-1 (Apr. 10, 2023)(NP).

In this decision, the material facts were not in dispute. The appellant suspected that her husband was having an affair with a soldier in his unit. She improperly accessed agency databases containing Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to track down information on the soldier. She then passed along the PII to a colleague and asked the colleague to investigate whether the affair was occurring.

After a falling out with the appellant, the colleague reported the appellant’s conduct in accessing the PII. The agency investigated and removed the appellant for “unacceptable and inappropriate conduct from an HR employee.”

The Board upheld the appellant’s removal despite the Deciding Official making multiple mistakes:

  1. The DO inappropriately held the appellant to a higher standard based on perceived fiduciary responsibility. At the hearing, the DO “testified that she believed the appellant held fiduciary responsibilities, despite not being entrusted with anything related to the agency’s finances, by virtue of her access to employees’ personal information.” The Board clarified that fiduciary responsibilities under the Douglas factors only apply to an employee who has access or responsibility to an agency’s finances in some capacity – not PII.
  2. The DO wrongly concluded the agency’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) determined the appellant had committed a crime. Both the PO and DO relied on information that CID determined the appellant committed a criminal offense. In reality, CID only found that it had probable cause to believe the appellant committed crime but did not have enough evidence to actually prosecute. Therefore, it was error to consider the appellant “actually committed” a criminal
  3. The DO improperly found the appellant’s remorsefulness was not mitigating because the appellant argued that similarly situated employees were not similarly disciplined. Among her defenses, the appellant attempted to blame the coworker who printed out the PII, as well as the colleague who took the envelope of PII to look into the information. According to the Board, “it is generally inappropriate to use an employee’s attempts to defend herself in disciplinary proceedings as an aggravating factor or an indication that she lacked remorse.” While the AJ found the DO did not view the appellant’s “finger pointing” as an aggravating factor but instead merely viewed it as a factor relevant to determining the degree of mitigation to warrant her remorsefulness, the Board disagreed and found “that the deciding official inappropriately viewed the appellant’s attempt to defend herself as an aggravating factor.”
  4. The DO failed to give considerable mitigating weight to the appellant’s mental health conditions. The appellant asserted that, at the time of her misconduct, she was “extremely distressed” and dealing with depression and insomnia, and that she made a “rash and impractical decision” as a result. The Board found that this medical condition could have played a part in the charged conduct, and that the DO did not give it considerable weight as a mitigating factor.

Those four mistakes aside, the Board also held that removal was within the bounds of reasonableness. Because the nature and seriousness of the offense is the most important Douglas factor, the Board agreed with the AJ who “noted the deciding official’s testimony that she considered the appellant’s misconduct to be a serious offense that went to the core of her duties as an HR employee.”

In addition, the “appellant herself testified that, as an HR employee, she was responsible for protecting PII.”

The Board also identified several mitigating factors:

  • The appellant had 15 years of Federal service.
  • She consistently received the highest performance ratings.
  • She had never been disciplined.
  • Her depression may have played a part in the misconduct.
  • Difficulties in her marriage and personal life played a central role in her decision to engage in the misconduct.
  • She expressed remorse for the misconduct.

In addition, based in part upon demeanor evidence, the Board deferred to the AJ’s credibility assessment “that the appellant could not be trusted to maintain her professional judgment in the event she again suffered difficulties in her personal life.”

Therefore, the Board upheld the appellant’s removal despite the mitigating factors and the error made by the PO and DO.

For more on drafting legally sufficient disciplinary charges and making defensible penalty determinations, join me on Aug. 1 for Charges and Penalties Under the New MSPB, which is part of our five-day Federal Workplace 2023: Accountability, Challenges, and Trends event. [email protected]

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