By Deborah Hopkins, August 13, 2021

Over the last four years, the VA has enjoyed a lower burden of proof in taking disciplinary actions against employees covered by the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, 38 USC 714. Indeed, Congress passed this law in 2017 to make it easier to fire bad employees at the VA.

Between then and today, we have learned that the law is not retroactive for actions that occurred prior to its enactment (Sayers v. VA, 954 F.3d 1370 (Mar. 31, 2020); Brenner v. VA, No. 2019-2032 (Mar. 9, 2021)) and that, while MSPB has no penalty mitigation authority in actions taken under this law, agencies must show by substantial evidence that their selected penalty is reasonable. Mogil v. VA, No. 2018-1673 (Fed. Cir. May 1, 2019). Ok, fine. We can live with that.

Now, get ready.

On August 12, the Federal Circuit hit us with a big one. In this case, a Supervisory Consumer Affairs Specialist named Ariel Rodriguez yelled and used profanity at a patient in a VA facility. The confrontation escalated and the police were called. The police had to escort Rodriguez to his office because he was so agitated. After that, Rodriguez returned to the reception area, where he again confronted the patient. During the investigation that followed, Rodriguez was dishonest in his account of the events that occurred. He also attempted to influence one of his employees to alter her testimony to the investigator.

Rodriguez was removed on three charges: (1) disruptive behavior toward a veteran patient; (2) conduct unbecoming a federal supervisor, and (3) lack of candor. The facts justified an easy removal for the VA – or so we all thought. Plenty of witnesses, police activity, a patient’s wellbeing in danger, clear nexus – no question there was substantial evidence of misconduct and substantial evidence to support removal.

But wait.

The Federal Circuit saw things differently. There are two huge new takeaways that every management official at the VA must be aware of, courtesy of this case, Rodriguez v. VA, No. 2019-2025 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 12, 2021).

  1. The standard of proof for a VA to take a disciplinary action is a PREPONDERANCE of the evidence; the substantial standard in the statute only refers to MSPB’s review of the action.
  2. The VA must complete a Douglas factors analysis for its disciplinary actions, even though the MSPB lacks authority to mitigate the agency’s penalty.

Let’s look at each in turn.

  1. Burden of Proof

For the past four years, just about everyone in this business has been under the impression that the language in 38 USC 714(d)(2)-(3) “if the decision is supported by substantial evidence” meant that the agency action also required the substantial evidence standard. It’s even in the VA’s Discipline policy.

But the Federal Circuit said otherwise:

The references to “substantial evidence” in section 714 are all explicitly directed to the standard of review to be applied by administrative judges and the Board. Those references do not address the standard of proof to be applied by the DVA in making disciplinary determinations, nor does the remaining text of section 714 explicitly address the standard of proof in proceedings before the DVA…[T]he language of section 714 implies that the proper standard is the preponderance of the evidence. Section 714 provides that an employee may be removed, demoted, or suspended “if the Secretary determines the performance or misconduct of the covered individual warrants” such action. In the case of a disciplinary action based on misconduct, the requirement that the Secretary “determine” that the misconduct in question warrants disciplinary action implies that the Secretary must find that it is likely, i.e., more likely than not, that the employee has engaged in the misconduct that justifies the proposed discipline. [bold added]

The court’s explanation included discussion that if substantial evidence was the standard used, a Deciding Official would be required to find against the employee with regard to the charged misconduct even if the Deciding Official did not personally agree with that conclusion, because when substantial evidence is applied, a reasonable person might disagree and yet the standard is still met. The court said in no uncertain terms that the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act does not contain “any language stating explicitly, or even implicitly, that the burden of proof in disciplinary actions should be substantial evidence.”

Because the agency applied the substantial evidence standard in this case, what we now know is an incorrect standard, it was remanded back to the MSPB.

  1. Douglas Factors

Because the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act explicitly states that the MSPB does not have the authority to mitigate the agency’s penalty (38 USC 714(d)(2)(B)), in the first year or two after the law’s enactment the VA was (and the rest of us were) under the impression that Douglas factors were not required. In other words, if a penalty could not be mitigated, then there was no need to justify the penalty – and penalty defense is the primary reason why agencies use the Douglas factors.

Starting in 2019, the Federal Circuit determined that there must be substantial evidence the agency’s penalty is reasonable, otherwise the MSPB could remand a case back to an agency to determine a more appropriate penalty. Mogil, above.

The court in Rodriguez takes things further and says, “this court has made clear that the absence of mitigation authority does not deprive the Board of the authority to review penalties for substantial evidence” and that mitigation authority is completely divorced from “the power to review and strike down the DVA’s imposition of penalties that are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or not in accordance with law.” To that end:

For a reviewing tribunal to find a decision not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law, that decision must have been based “on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment…” [citation omitted] Accordingly, because the Board must review the DVA’s penalty selection in a section 714 case, that review must ensure that the DVA considered the relevant factors bearing on the penalty determination.

The court emphasized this point by declaring the Deciding Official must “weigh the relevant factors bearing on the appropriateness of the penalty, including the relevant Douglas factors” in cases of misconduct. So, there it is.

There is a whole lot more to discuss from this decision, but we’ll tackle those issues another time. As for now, we are anticipating multiple years’ worth of cases will be remanded to determine whether the VA had a preponderance of the evidence, and not merely substantial evidence, in taking appealable disciplinary actions. The good news for the VA is, preponderance is not too difficult to show, and I would bet they can meet this burden in nearly every case. The bad news is there’s a whole lot more work ahead. Please let us know how we can help – and attend UnCivil Servant September 8-9 or MSPB Law Week September 13-17 for all the details on what happens now.

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