By Deborah J. Hopkins, September 19, 2022
I don’t know about you, but I am still loving the fact that we have a fully functioning MSPB again. While you might be tempted to skip over the non-precedential (NP) cases, you should rethink that because we have found several jewels in NP cases over the past six months.
One of the the trends we’ve seen in 432 actions – performance-based removals and demotions – is that the MSPB has been remanding cases if the record doesn’t contain substantial evidence of unacceptable performance that justified the agency’s decision to place the employee on a PIP. And because that requirement didn’t exist until March 22, 2021 (Santos v. NASA, No. 2019-2345, Fed. Cir. Mar. 11, 2021; see also Singh v. USPS, 2022 MSPB 15 (May 31, 2022)), most of the 432 cases are being remanded on this point. Santos never explicitly stated what types of evidence agencies could use to justify the PIP, instead ruling, “we are not prescribing any particular evidentiary showing with respect to the employee’s pre-PIP performance. Performance failures can be documented or established in any number of ways.”
So, one of the items that jumped out at me in a brand-new case (Slama v. HHS, SF-531D-15-0266-I-4; SF-0432-16-0496-I-1 (Aug. 24, 2022)(NP)) is we now know at least one type of evidence the Board will consider in pre-PIP unacceptable performance determinations.
A bit of history first: In Slama, the appellant’s performance problems started in 2011. Bigger problems emerged in performance year 2013, and he received a Level 1 summary rating in 2014. His unacceptable performance that year led to the denial of a Within Grade Increase (WIGI), which he appealed to the MSPB. For reasons not explained in the case, the appellant was not put on a PIP until 2015 after he received yet another Level 1 summary rating. The appellant failed the PIP and the agency removed him later that year. He appealed … and into the backlog the new case went.
Fast forward to 2022, the return of the quorum, and the new Santos requirement. In Slama, the MSPB joined his two appeals (one over the WIGI denial and the other over the 432 action) and, among other things, decided that the material that forms the basis of a WIGI denial can also be used to justify a PIP and meet the Santos requirement. According to the case:
The administrative judge found that the agency demonstrated by substantial evidence that, before being placed on the PIP, the appellant’s performance in the critical elements of administrative requirements, communication, and technical competence was unacceptable [citation omitted]. The administrative judge based her finding largely on the same facts and analysis under which she had affirmed the agency’s [acceptable level of competence] determination in connection with the WIGI denial. ¶25
While WIGI denials are rare, it’s quite interesting (and time saving) that the Board will rely on that same content to show the agency can justify the PIP. It might be helpful for those of you handling the 432 remands to check the WIGI files and see if you have anything you can use. And then join me for Back on Board: Keeping Up with the New MSPB on October 20. Hopkins@FELTG.com