By Deborah Hopkins, January 14, 2020
When Bill Wiley and I teach MSPB Law Week (next held in Washington, DC March 9-13), we get a lot of great questions.
And occasionally, we get pushback from an attendee on some of our practice methods. One hot topic that always generates discussion – and the occasional challenge – is where to use the Douglas Factors analysis in a removal case.
We have written about this topic multiple times, because it’s a topic people always have questions about. So it’s a fitting discussion for the first newsletter of the year, and the decade.
At FELTG, our approach is to attach a Douglas Factors Worksheet to the proposal notice. We don’t just do that because we think we’re smart; we do that because the law requires us to give the employee the reasons relied upon for the proposed action, and attaching said worksheet ensures we comply with the law, every single time.
Here’s a direct quote from Douglas v. VA, 5 MSPR 280 (1981):
[A]ggravating factors on which the agency intends to rely for imposition of an enhanced penalty, such as a prior disciplinary record, should be included in the advance notice of charges so that the employee will have a fair opportunity to respond to those alleged factors …
That’s right, all the way back in 1981 when the ink was barely dry on the Civil Service Reform Act, the famous Douglas decision laid out 12 factors to consider in determining a penalty for misconduct, and the aggravating factors (those factors which work against the employee and weigh in favor of a harsher penalty) must be included in the proposal notice.
And who is responsible for the proposal notice? The Proposing Official (PO), of course, usually in conjunction with an advisor from L/ER or OGC. The proposal letter, along with any attachments, such as a Douglas Factors Worksheet, is what gives the employee the “advance notice” required by the Douglas decision.
Sometimes a person in our class wants to get into a debate about why we include all 12 factors in the proposal when Douglas only requires the employee to be given notice of the aggravating factors.
It is true that the legal minimum is to give the employee only the aggravating factors, but at FELTG this is one of the few times we go beyond the legal minimum. We don’t want to get into a fight about whether a particular factor is aggravating or mitigating, so we include them all upfront.
One of the examples we use in class to illustrate this principle is length of service. Let’s say the employee has worked for your agency for nine years. Is that length of service aggravating or mitigating? The PO might think it’s mitigating, but if the Deciding Official (DO) thinks it’s aggravating and we haven’t given the employee the “Length of Service” factor in the proposal notice, we run the risk of a due process violation. In addition, the Federal Circuit has highlighted that the employee must be put on notice of any penalty factors on which the Board is going to rely in making its decision. Ward v. USPS, No. 2010-3021 (Fed. Cir. 2011).
If the Proposal Letter contains only three or four aggravating factors, and the Deciding Official does a full Douglas analysis and decides there’s a fifth aggravating factor and does not provide notice to the employee, that DO has committed a due process violation because the employee has now been denied his legal right to fully defend himself. That due process violation is an automatic loser, regardless of the evidence on the merits.
The safest thing to do is to include all the Douglas factors in the proposal. Then we don’t have to make the call on whether a factor that could go either way is more aggravating or mitigating. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Here’s the process:
- Employee is given the proposal notice, an attached Douglas Factors Worksheet, and any evidence relied upon.
- Employee responds to the Deciding Official based on the proposal notice and its attachments.
- Deciding Official makes a decision based only on the proposal, which includes the Douglas Factors worksheet, and the employee’s response.
As discussed above, the Douglas decision says the employee gets notice of the factors relied upon when the proposal is made – not the decision. So, if the DO agrees with the Douglas analysis in the proposal, there’s no need to add a word to the penalty assessment. Her decision letter will just say: “I have considered the penalty assessment factor analysis contained in the Proposal Letter, and I concur.” No new information, no due process violation.
If the DO disagrees is some way with the Douglas analysis in the proposal, or comes across new information that was not in the proposal or the employee’s response (let’s say she gets an email from a former coworker, discussing how the employee always cheated on his time cards when they worked together), the safest thing to do is to send the employee what we call a Ward letter, describe the new information that was considered, and give the employee a chance to respond to that new information.
If the case ends up on appeal before the MSPB, the Administrative Judge will certainly be more interested in what the DO has to say, than what the PO has to say. This does not mean the DO has to do a separate Douglas Factors analysis, though; it just means that the DO should be intimately familiar with the PO’s Douglas analysis and be prepared to answer any questions about the content therein, since she is signing off on the analysis and agreeing with it.
I hope you agree that in the Great Debate of 2020 (and 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016….all the way back to 1981), the clear winner is Douglas in the proposal notice. We’ve even helped agencies rewrite their discipline policies to reflect this legal requirement. Let us know if you want help with yours; we’d be happy to assist. Hopkins@FELTG.com