By Deborah Hopkins, May 9, 2022

As new cases start coming out of the MSPB after its 5-year wait for a quorum, cases containing lessons with broad applicability to Federal agencies are still few and far between. But a recent decision, involving an appellant’s removal based on conduct unbecoming a Federal manager, caught my attention. The agency charged the employee with 18 specifications. After a 5-day hearing, the Administrative Judge (AJ) found that the agency failed to prove any of the specifications supporting the charge, and ordered the agency to reinstate the employee. The agency filed a PFR.

In its decision, the Board reiterated that a charge of conduct unbecoming has no specific elements of proof; the agency establishes the charge by proving the appellant committed the acts alleged under this broad label. Then it turned its attention to the specifications, a number of which the Board said did evidence conduct unbecoming, and several that did not. Let’s take a look.

The below specifications are conduct unbecoming.

  • During a meeting with another agency employee, the appellant held up a copy of an email the employee had sent him, which was seeking clarification about pay raises, and the appellant said, “[L]ooking at this email … I found it [expletive] offensive.” (FELTG’s best guess is that the expletive started with the letter “f” and rhymes with “trucking,” which we confirmed after reading the initial decision. And with that please, new MSPB, would you consider ending the practice of sanitizing expletives in your opinions? Let the words speak for themselves.)
  • In a meeting with a fellow manager about outsourcing information technology services, the appellant told the manager about a specific employee who had filed an EEO complaint in order to illustrate that one advantage of outsourcing is that the agency does not have to deal with personnel matters such as EEO complaints.
  • During a meeting with several colleagues, the appellant placed his hand over a Project Director’s mouth to prevent him from making further comments.
  • The appellant intimidated two attorneys who wrote a draft memo for the Director and told them that issuing the memo would be a “career ender.”
  • After he received a Level 3 performance rating, the appellant asked the HR Director to negotiate with the agency’s Acting Director on his behalf for a higher rating so that he would receive a bonus, “thus placing the HR Director in the untenable position of either refusing his supervisor’s request or negotiating with his former second-level supervisor for a better performance rating for his supervisor.”

These specifications are not conduct unbecoming.

  • During a meeting with the EEO Director, the HR Director, the HR Deputy Director, and agency attorneys about anonymous EEO complaints, the appellant commented that employees should not be allowed to make anonymous EEO complaints and that they should have more “skin in the game.”
  • The appellant told the agency’s EEO and Diversity Director and an EEO Counselor that he did not believe any of the complaints about the HR Deputy Director, and that if there were any more complaints about her there would be serious consequences. (While the Board found this behavior troubling, the agency’s lack of discipline of the employee when he made the comment several years earlier meant they failed to prove this specification, because the agency “merely [took] “the remedial step of advising the appellant of the legal and policy importance of allowing employees to file anonymous internal complaints.)
  • The appellant stated in front of a group of employees that a fellow senior-level employee should be put on a PIP.
  • The appellant told a fellow manager that the allegations in her grievance against the agency’s CIO would be reflected in the CIO’s performance evaluation.
  • The appellant “became agitated” when the Acting Director questioned him about a workplace matter.

Not all 18 specifications are listed; a number of specifications the AJ found the agency did not prove were left undisturbed because of the AJ’s credibility assessments of the evidence at hearing. Hornsby v. FHFA, DC-0752-15-0576-I-2 (Apr. 28, 2022)(NP).

Quite a lot in a non-precedential case, wouldn’t you say? We’ll be discussing a lot more takeaways at the July 20 virtual event Back on Board: Keeping Up with the New MSPB. [email protected]

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