By William Wiley, September 12, 2022

Best practices in our business are worth restating on occasion, particularly when we get new adjudicators at MSPB. From an otherwise unremarkable recent Board final order, we are refreshingly reminded of the following principles related to federal employee discipline.

FACTS: During a discussion with an agency manager, the employee walked toward the management official, snatched a leave request form out of his hand, and then pushed the official’s hand down “in an aggressive manner.”

QUESTION: Can an agency fire an employee who does something this minor?

ANSWER: Yes, IF the agency knows what it is doing, see Stevens v. Navy, DC-0752-21-0412-I-1, August 5, 2022 (NP).

REAFFIRMED DISCIPLINE PRINCIPLES:

  1. A generic unlabeled charge is often better than a more specific labeled charge. If you have attended FELTG’s famous MSPB Law Week seminar, you know that an unlabeled charge of misconduct has no separate elements of proof; the agency need prove only the underlying misconduct. In comparison, a labeled charge requires that the agency prove both the underlying misconduct AND the elements of the definition of the specific charge. Here, the agency used the generic unlabeled charge of “unacceptable conduct.” Therefore, it needed to prove only the “FACTS” laid out above. On appeal, the appellant argued that the agency failed to prove that an “assault” or “threat” occurred. Because the agency avoided using the specific labels of “Assault” or “Making a Threat,” it had no obligation to prove the elements that define those specifically labeled charges. Therefore, the appellant’s argument failed, and the Board sustained the charge.
  2. Misconduct that occurred many months earlier can be disciplined without the charge being dismissed as stale. In this appeal, the appellant appeared to argue the equitable defense of laches. In that argument, an individual asserts that discipline cannot be administered because the misconduct occurred too far in the past prior to the initiation of discipline. Laches bars an adverse action when an unreasonable delay in bringing the action has prejudiced the party against whom the action is taken. The elements of a laches defense require proof of BOTH an unreasonable delay AND prejudice, e.g., there is no automatic bar to taking an action just because it occurred far in the past. The one-year delay in this case was found to be neither unreasonable nor prejudicial. In fact, MSPB has previously found that a delay of three or four years did not warrant reversal of the discipline ultimately administered. Therefore, the laches defense failed.
  3. It is safest if the deciding official (DO) does not discuss the proposed discipline with others prior to making a decision. Since the cooling of the Earth, we at FELTG have counseled that the agency is in the most defensible position if the DO considers only the materials in the proposal notice and the employee’s response when deciding what discipline is warranted. If the DO considers facts outside of these two documents, there is a chance the employee’s due process rights will be violated. Constitutional due process requires the agency tell the employee what facts the DO will be relying on so the employee can mount a defense to the proposed action. In this case, the DO did not follow our advice and discussed the pending discipline with others before making a decision regarding the proposal. However, because much of that discussion simply confirmed facts already in the proposal, there was no violation of due process. Separately, even though arguably the DO learned about facts not in the proposal, he testified that he did not rely on those facts. Based on a credibility determination, the judge held that the DO’s testimony was true and concluded that the appellant’s arguments were unpersuasive. The agency won this point on appeal. However, if the DO had not engaged in these ex parte discussions, the judge would not have had to assess credibility and the Board would not have had to review the undisclosed material to determine whether they contained new facts or simply confirmed existing facts in the proposal notice.
  4. A removal after a suspension will almost always be found to be a reasonable penalty. Progressive discipline is not a requirement prior to firing an employee for misconduct. However, if the agency has previously disciplined the employee, removal for a subsequent act of misconduct will almost always be found to be a reasonable penalty even if the later misconduct is relatively minor. This is particularly true if the second act of misconduct is a suspension (as it was here) and similar to the first misconduct (thereby establishing a pattern of misconduct). Always remember, it is not up to the Board to decide what the proper penalty should be. Rather, it is the Board’s responsibility to determine whether the DO properly weighed the relevant Douglas Factors and whether the removal penalty “clearly exceeded the bounds of reasonableness.”

You have three ways to learn basic principles like these: work in the business 10 to 15 years (learning from your mistakes as you go), read 43 years of Board decisions (plus the related decisions of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals), or attend our FELTG seminars. When deciding which of these to undertake, keep one very important distinction in mind: At FELTG, you get free coffee. Wiley@FELTG.com

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