By William Wiley, November 15, 2017
Here’s how we learn to do things in the federal civil service:
- Congress passes civil-service-related legislation that the President signs into law.
- Agencies read the law, take their best guess at what the details are, then start doing stuff (e.g., firing bad employees, if that’s what the law is about).
- The employee appeals the agency’s action (e.g., the firing) and the US Merit Systems Protection Board, then the courts, tell us whether the agency did the right thing, or misinterpreted the law.
If you are a regular reader of our fabulously free FELTG newsletter, you might remember that the President earlier this year signed into law a major revamping of the disciplinary procedures that apply to most DVA employees, 38 USC 714. The purpose of the legislation was to make it easier for supervisors at DVA to hold employees accountable for misconduct by making it easier to discipline them.
Our hard-working friends at DVA then began working on how to implement the new procedures. That’s Step 2, above. Just recently, we started getting elucidating decisions from MSPB (Step 3), and they look awfully good if you’re a fan of employee accountability. Here’s what we now know about the new law that applies to most DVA employees:
- No Douglas Factor Analysis Required – Experienced practitioners know that in most all other agencies since the early ’80s, when an agency fires an employee for misconduct, it has to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the penalty is not overly severe. To do this, the deciding official has to evaluate and document the 12 Douglas Factors that are relevant to a penalty decision, plus consider any other mitigating factors that the employee might provide in response to the proposed removal. In the cases we help agencies with here at FELTG, half of the time and effort in a removal action goes into developing this part of the agency’s defense. As importantly, penalty defense is an area of the removal that is fraught with the potential for due process violations. In the first initial decision issued by an AJ at the Board applying the new law, although DVA conservatively included a Douglas Factor analysis in its removal, the judge effectively ignored it. She noted that since 38 USC 714(d)(2)(B) prohibits the judge’s mitigation of the penalty, a Douglas-defense was irrelevant to upholding the removal once misconduct was proven. Akinpelu v. DVA, DA-0714-17-0474-I-1 (October 31, 2017)(ID).
- Need Prove Only One Charge – For almost 40 years, agencies have had the burden of proving all the charges brought or risk losing the removal penalty. Multiple charges demonstrate the seriousness of what the employee has done and why removal is warranted. As we’ve taught in our FELTG seminars for nearly 20 years, it is paramount that the agency in defense of its removal prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employee’s misconduct is serious enough to justify the firing. In the second initial decision issued by the Board under DVA’s new law, we learn that is no longer the situation in that agency. In that case, DVA brought seven charges against the employee ranging from having unauthorized guns, to failing to follow instructions, to engaging in hostile behavior. The judge reasoned that because DVA’s burden of proof is the substantial level rather than the higher preponderance level, “if the agency is able to meet its burden of proof with respect to any one charge in a multi-charge disciplinary action, that will be sufficient to affirm the removal.” The judge then picked two of the charges (one for back-up, I guess), adjudicated them, and affirmed the removal. Again, no Douglas Factor analysis. Kneipp v. DVA, PH-0714-17-0405-I-1 (November 2, 2017)(ID).
- Decisions Under this Law are SHORT – Four pages and each of these judges was done. Compare that to the last initial decision you got under 5 USC Chapter 75.
Oh, I can just hear those wimpy weak-kneed practitioners now; “But Bill, these are just a couple of decisions from two judges of the many judges at MSPB. They have no precedential value, so why should we get all excited for DVA?” Well, Potato Head, if you had been an MSPB insider as I was for nearly a decade, you would know that no Board judge issues a decision in cases this important without the draft decision being reviewed and approved by the Chief Judge for the region. MSPB AJs are not statutorily-delegated independent adjudicatory authority as are ALJs. The Chief Judge of the region (aka the Regional Director) has the authority and responsibility to make certain that AJ decisions are “correct” before they are issued. These two decisions are from two different regions under the auspices of two separate chief judges. In my opinion, they speak for more than just the two judges involved.
Think these new principles through together. Hypothetically, DVA has an employee who breaks a rule; say, comes to work an hour late, and is thereby AWOL. DVA management decides to fire the employee for the hour of AWOL even though the employee has been a good employee for 20+ years, was under a lot of stress the morning he was tardy, and other employees under the supervision of the Deciding Official have come to work late without being fired. At any other agency in government, this kind of removal most likely would be reversed. At DVA under 38 USC 714, it’s a slam-dunk affirmed termination.
By the way, if you’re sitting there all smug thinking that this approach will never be found to satisfy due process by the courts, you would be mistaken. This lower burden of proof, requiring that only one “charge” be proven to be substantial evidence that removal is warranted, coupled with no-Douglas/no-mitigation has been the law for 40 years when you defend a Chapter 43 unacceptable performance removal.
What does all this mean for you? You don’t work at DVA. Why do you care that their ability to hold bad employees accountable just got humongous-ly easier for the supervisor? Well, my friends, think of it this way. If you’re the Secretary of any other agency in government, when you notice that your political-appointee buddies over at DVA are removing employees who do bad things left and right without the worries like you have concerning losing a big one and being embarrassed all over the Washington Post, how long would it take you to get to your oversight committees on Capitol Hill and ask for the same me-too authority? If you’re an employment law practitioner working nights and weekends to stay even with your case load, and you see your counterparts at DVA taking up golf and spending time with their kids, are you not as jealous as a person can be? Should we call around the agency car with the siren and red lights for you to go up to The Hill, or will you be helicoptering in instead?
Here at FELTG, we take no position as to whether this is the direction that our civil service should be going. Whether it likes it or not, DVA is the canary in the coal mine on this reduced-rights approach. If the new law continues to result in MSPB decisions that allow supervisors greater control over employees who do bad things, unless there’s a ground swell of objection other than from the usual suspects, we predict that someday this will be the extent of civil service protections. The future is now, at least over at DVA. Our FELTG-congratulations for this initial success and our ever-lasting thanks to the outstanding practitioner who flagged these decisions for us. We are, after all, in this together. Wiley@FELTG.com