By William Wiley, May 22, 2018
MSPB just established a new policy. You need to know it and decide what to do before you are called on to act on short notice.
As most all Board practitioners are aware, MSPB HQ has effectively been shut down since January 6, 2017. On that date, one of the two remaining Board members unceremoniously resigned before her term was up, leaving the Board with only one member and thereby without a quorum. MSPB quorums are essential to the Board being able to act. The three-membered Board, comprised of Presidential appointees, gets involved when either the firing agency or the fired former-employee files a Petition for Review (PFR) challenging the initial decision of an MSPB administrative judge (AJ). A single member cannot issue a final Opinion and Order to resolve a pending PFR. It takes two to tango; it takes two to adjudicate PFRs.
Many actions related to case handling taken by the Board require agreement among the Board members. No single Board member, with rare exception, has the independent authority to do much when it comes to the resolution of PFRs. The challenge this approach has caused has been magnified by the day-by-day growth of the pending PFR decision backlog for the past 16+ months. If you are a wrongly fired employee, every day that your case is not resolved is potentially one more day you don’t pay your rent, or eat, or can’t hold your head up at dinner with the family.
Hypothetically, the judge ruled against you in the fall of 2016. You filed your PFR challenging the judge’s misplaced initial decision, and began to wait for a Board decision on your appeal. In normal times, that wait would have been around six months – sometimes a bit more, sometimes a little less. However, being the smart appellant you are, about last spring you begin to realize that you aren’t going to be getting a decision on your PFR anytime soon. You decide that enough is enough, and file a motion to withdraw your pending PFR, formally asking the Board to dismiss your appeal. Better to be out of that mess than stuck there indefinitely, you might be reasoning.
But, wait! Your PFR is pending with a quorum-less impotent Board. If MSPB lacks the legal authority to issue any decisions, arguably it lacks the legal authority to grant your motion to dismiss your PFR. That two-to-tango thing might well apply to cases pending at MSPB HQ whether they are to be dismissed as withdrawn or ruled on in a decision. Maybe the single remaining Board member just can’t do anything.
Well, perhaps relief is in sight. MSPB just announced a policy that even with just a single member seated, the Board’s Clerk can grant motions to dismiss pending PFRs if:
- The motion to withdraw is not based on a settlement;
- It is unopposed by the other party; and
- It is timely filed.
It appears that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel for parties to PFRs who are tired of waiting on a decision. But, wait! (Again.) What does “timely filed” mean? There’s nothing in the Board’s regulations that sets a time limit for filing a Motion to Withdraw. Will the Clerk use the time limits for filing the initial appeal documents? That doesn’t help the poor schleps who have been sitting at the Board for over a year, waiting on their government to act. And what does a withdrawn PFR do for the withdrawing party? Can an appellant whose PFR is withdrawn now file with the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, thereby challenging the AJ’s decision? Aren’t the time limits for that based on the date of the judge’s initial decision or a Board final Opinion and Order? The drop-dead date for appealing to the Federal Circuit based on the judge’s initial decision has long passed in most cases, and a Clerk’s dismissal based on a Motion to Withdraw doesn’t feel like a final Board Opinion and Order. Finally, is this new policy even legal? Lordy, I hope so, ’cause if it’s not, we’re looking at some pretty messed up cases should this thing be overturned a couple of years down the road.
It appears to us here at FELTG that there are some questions yet to be answered relative to this new policy. However, it is a policy in force right now, so be aware and be prepared. For example, if you are an agency representative in a pending PFR case, will you object if the appellant who filed the PFR asks that it be dismissed? How would a dismissal be to your advantage?
Alternatively, what if the judge set aside your removal in the initial decision and you filed the PFR? Why would you withdraw your appeal? You’ve already restored the employee to interim paid employment. Is it worth it to give up your chance to be heard by a Trump-appointed Board to roll the dice and see if OPM and DoJ will support your appealing to the Federal Circuit? Even if so, will the Federal Circuit find your appeal there to be timely filed?
The leadership of the Board is to be commended for trying to do something (anything) to reduce the pain being suffered by agencies and appellants who are stuck in the backed-up toilet of PFR adjudication. Our FELTG guesstimate is that as of today there are about 1050 cases sitting there at Board HQ on M Street NW, waiting on just one more signature by a new member to be resolved. Although the President in March nominated two new Board members who will resolve the no-quorum dilemma, the Senate has not scheduled the predicate hearing necessary to get a vote on the nominees. And as all you Hill Observers out there know, if it doesn’t happen by mid-July on Capitol Hill, it ain’t gonna happen until the frost is on the pumpkin in the fall.
Sometimes we have more questions than answers, and this is one of those times. But that doesn’t mean you can wait on the answers. Get those great minds at your agency (or in your union) on a teleconference, discuss the pros and cons of withdrawing pending appeals, and make a smart decision about to what to do now, before it’s necessary to act. [email protected]