By William Wiley, February 6, 2019

Most members of FELTG Nation know that the Douglas Factors are the 12 employee-specific situational factors that agencies use to determine and defend a penalty selection in a misconduct removal appeal. Fail to evaluate the 12 factors the way that MSPB thinks they should be evaluated, and the Board will lower (mitigate) your removal to something less. When that happens, the employee gets her job back and you get sent to the dog house for not foreseeing how MSPB will consider the penalty.

When I was Chief Counsel to the MSPB Chairman, I reviewed thousands and thousands of Douglas Factor assessments. Without a scintilla of hesitation or doubt, I can assure you that the following three graduate-level principles will help you do a better job of defending your penalty section in a removal appeal:

1. Judges think in linear terms. Few people outside of MSPB know this, but when an individual is hired to be a Board administrative judge, that lawyer has to undergo a surgical procedure. In that procedure, 12 groves are made in the acolyte’s brain, one for each Douglas Factor. In assessing an appeal or listening to testimony at hearing, the judge likes to fill each grove with information about just that Douglas Factor, in the order that the factors are listed in the original Douglas decision. So, what does this mean for you as a practitioner?

  • Don’t go discussing the penalty factors in some sort of smashed-together paragraph.No matter how elegant and insightful your narrative discussion might be, you’re going to cause the judge to have to dissect what you’ve said and try to sort it all out into those little groves in his brain. You do not want the judge to have to do that. You do not want a judge to work any harder than necessary to understand the theory of your case and your evidence to support that theory.
  • Address all 12 factors, in order. Even if a factor carries no weight because there’s nothing there, note that the proposing official considered it and found nothing. A simple “Not Applicable” will do the trick. The mistake you are avoiding by doing this is a claim by the employee that you skipped a factor and didn’t even think about it, when the truth is that you thought about it and found it to be irrelevant.
  • Carefully segregate your factual description and limit your discussion of a factor to just that factor. For example, when discussing Factor One, Seriousness, don’t talk about how the misconduct is serious because the employee is a supervisor. You’ll be able to discuss the employee’s supervisory status in Factor Two, Job Level. You get negative points for repeating yourself in a Douglas analysis.

2. Some factors have subcomponents. Factors One, Two, and Four have evolved separate and somewhat distinct subcomponents over the years that the Board has been analyzing penalties. For example, Factor Four, Past Work Record, includes the subcomponents of a) Length of Service and b) Performance Rating. In fact, the Length of Service subcomponent has three subcomponents to it. Be sure to address all subcomponents or the Board will find fault in your analysis and perhaps substitute its penalty determination for yours. You don’t want MSPB doing that. Either come to one of our always-elucidating seminars (next offered in Washington, DC March 11-15) and we’ll teach you all the subcomponents or figure them out for yourself.

3. A Douglas Factor worksheet should be attached to the proposal notice. I’m not sure why this has been such a controversial matter for some agencies. On occasion, I’ve been confronted by more than one practitioner who argued passionately that the proposal notice should NOT contain a Douglas Factor analysis. I never really understood that argument because the Douglas decision itself says:

Moreover, aggravating 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 before the agency’s deciding official, and the decision notice should explain what weight was given to those factors in reaching the agency’s final decision. Douglas v. VA, 5 MSPR 280 (1981)
I guess you could split hairs and say that only aggravating, not mitigating, Douglas Factors have to be in the proposal notice. Well, do you REALLY want to bet your case on defending the evaluation of whether a specific factor is aggravating or mitigating? Length of Service can be either aggravating or mitigating, depending on how long the employee has been a civil servant. We have to consider both aggravating and mitigating factors in the final decision. Why would we not put them all in the proposal so that the employee knows what we’re doing and why? Maybe we’ve forgotten something (e.g., military service) that is required to be considered. She should have the opportunity to know this stuff so she can respond and defend herself completely.

In addition, as we’ve taught here at FELTG for nearly 20 years, the Board holds agencies to different burdens of proof when a fact is asserted in the penalty analysis as compared to when a fact is asserted in the charge section of a proposal notice. By analyzing the penalty in a separate document, the Douglas Factor Worksheet, we make it exceedingly clear to the judge exactly what is going where, and thereby which of the two proof burdens he is supposed to use when evaluating our case.

In a recent case I was working with an agency legal counsel, during the prehearing conference the appellant began to argue to the judge that the selection of removal as the penalty was unfair. The judge cut her off right away by saying, “Madam, it is not my job to assess the fairness of the penalty. It is my job to assess whether your supervisors properly assessed all the factors relevant to penalty selection.” That judge understands how Douglas works, and so should you. Wiley@FELTG.com

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