By William Wiley

Whether you are a supervisor, attorney, human resources specialist, or union representative, many readers of this newsletter are in the business of employee accountability. Discipline is a major tool in the world of employee accountability. Yet, as much as we deal with it, and as important as it is in many ways, discipline is not an easy thing to define. And its definitions can be exceedingly important, varying from one forum to another. In this article, we here at FELTG try to sort them out for you.

MSPB: What is and is not discipline is tremendously important in the world of MSPB appeals. As every practitioner knows, when an agency is defending a removal penalty as being reasonable, the agency relies on the fabulous and famous Douglas Factors. Otherwise known as “penalty defense” factors, agencies who remove employees have had to analyze these 12 factors since 1981 to explain to the Board why the employee deserved to be fired rather than receive some lesser penalty.

Factor 3 in that list of mandatory factor consideration is the employee’s prior discipline history. The theory is that an employee who the supervisor has previously disciplined warrants a more severe penalty for a subsequent infraction than a similar employee who has not been given the benefit of discipline and a chance to learn from her mistakes. This theory of discipline is well established and often goes by the name “progressive discipline.”

To apply the theory of progressive discipline in support of a removal, it is critical to know what counts as discipline and what does not. In other words, we need a definition of a disciplinary act to distinguish “true” discipline from some lesser act on the part of the supervisor. Unfortunately, Congress did not see fit to define discipline in law. Fortunately, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals early-on stepped into the breach and defined discipline for the purpose applying progressive discipline to defend a removal as having three mandatory characteristics:

  1. It must be in writing,
  2. It must be grievable, and
  3. It must be stored in an official employee file.

Bolling v. Air Force, 9 MSPR 335 (1981)

Universally throughout government, there are three documents that meet these criteria in support of a removal when applying the Douglas Factors. The Terrific Three are:

  1. Reprimand
  2. Suspension
  3. Demotion/Removal

By OPM regulations, these three documents are written, challengeable, and stored in an employee’s Official Personnel Folder, although somewhat briefly in the case of a reprimand. If these were the only supervisory actions used to correct behavior, the world would be a simpler and better place. In fact, that’s exactly what we teach in the FELTG supervisory training classes we present. Stay with these three, and your life will be simpler and your actions more defensible.

Unfortunately, some agency policy makers and discipline advisors have chosen to add other actions to the list of options that a supervisor has when trying to obtain employee compliance with a rule: warnings, counselings, admonishments, letters of expectation, letters of requirement, etc. I ran into a DoD agency many years ago that even had something officially called an “Oral Admonishment Reduced to Writing.” Sometimes one or more of these is listed in the agency’s Table of Penalties, sometimes in a collective bargaining agreement, and sometimes they have been used historically; therefore, they are still used today.

The overriding problem when we use these extra options is that there is no universal definition for them like there is for the Terrific Three. For example, when you give an Admonishment, can you use it for the purpose of applying the theory of Douglas Factor 3, progressive discipline? Well, we don’t know until we apply the Bolling criteria. In my experience, sometimes an Admonishment meets the criteria, but sometimes not. These extra options create a potential problem on appeal because, as every seasoned practitioner knows, the more opportunity you give yourself to make a mistake, the more likely it is that you will indeed make a mistake. There is a cost to using extra options that are not universally recognized when a case is challenged to a judge or to the Board. Every adverse thing you do to an employee can be challenged through the EEO complaint system. Why would you do more than necessary since the more you do, the more there is to become the subject of a complaint?

Costs aren’t necessarily to be avoided, however. One should always assess the potential benefits against the projected additional costs. So what’s the legal benefit of using any of these non-defined extra options?

There are none.

Oh, every now and then, someone in one of our classes will say that Letters of Warning and Letters of Counseling put the employee on notice of the rule, one of the Five Elements of Discipline. Yeah, well so does an email that states the rule, “Bill, be at your desk by 8:00 AM every morning.” And an email like this is not an “adverse action” that might have to be defended in a grievance or complaint, nor will it be confused with “prior discipline.” So the very best practice, by far, is to stick to the Terrific Three, avoid any creative other options, and your life will be much simpler and just as powerful. They are discipline.

OSC:  The US Office of Special Counsel is responsible for protecting whistleblowers against reprisal “personnel actions” taken by agency managers. We know that any of the Terrific Three counts as a personnel action for the purpose of this protection. But what about Admonishments? Letters of Counseling? If you give me a Letter of Warning, is it possible for OSC to conclude that you have reprised against me for whistleblowing? If OSC fails to act, might I convince an MSPB judge or the Board itself through an Individual Right of Action appeal that you are indeed a Whistleblower Repriser? And of course any failure to find reprisal by the Board can be challenged by me to any numbered federal circuit court of appeal in which I can establish jurisdiction, ultimately coming to rest on the desk of the Clerk at the US Supreme Court, if I have the patience and can figure out the forms. Yes, it is highly important to know what constitutes a disciplinary “personnel action” for the purpose of an OSC investigation and re-primal-claim resolution.

Unfortunately, the courts have come up with a different way of figuring this one out. Instead of relying on the Bolling criteria as an indicator of what counts as a disciplinary personnel action and what does not, the Federal Circuit has decided that it will look to the specific words of the contested document, whether it is called a Warning or Admonishment or something else. If the document a) accuses the employee of prior misconduct and b) threatens a suspension or removal in the future if the misconduct is repeated, then it is a “personnel action” for the purpose of allowing the employee to pursue a whistleblower reprisal claim. Ingram v. Army, Fed. Cir. No. 2015-3110 (August 10, 2015).

Here are two Letters of Admonishment:

A. “Bill, I admonish you to turn out the lights when you leave for the day.”

B. “Bill, I admonish you to turn out the lights when you leave for the day. If you don’t, next time I will reprimand you.”

Option B can take the employee through an OSC investigation, discovery and a hearing at MSPB, an appeal to the three Board members, to a federal circuit court, and finally to the Supremes. Option A takes him nowhere. These things, whatever you call them, have no value. Why in the world would an agency want to open up the possibility of this sort of confusion and extended litigation for something that is of no benefit and can be easily avoided? To paraphrase First Lady Nancy Reagan, “Just say no to extra options.” Focus on the Terrific Three. Learn to do what counts and what works.

EEOC:  The Commission uses yet another standard when assessing whether an agency has done something to an employee in reprisal for her EEO activity, or her membership in a protected category; race, sex, age, etc. Whereas MSPB is concerned with Bolling disciplinary actions, and OSC is concerned with the broader concept of “personnel actions,” EEOC stands up to protect federal employees from the super-broad “adverse employment actions.” See Medina v. Henderson, No. 98-5471, 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 11042, 1999 WL 325497 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 30, 1999). Without doubt, EEOC considers reprimands, suspensions, and demotions to be adverse employment actions. But what about these Extra Options? If you give me a Letter of Counseling, can I file an EEO complaint against you? (Yes you can; e.g., Zenobia K., Complainant, v. DLA, EEOC No. 0120142873, July 15, 2016)

There is a surprising exception to the EEOC definition of adverse employment actions: PIP initiation letters. Many years ago, EEOC decided that since the initiation of a PIP is not itself adverse, but rather a preliminary act to a possible adverse employment action down the road, the initiation of a a performance Improvement Plan cannot be the subject of a discrimination complaint. A tip of our collective hats to the Commission for that good-sense ruling: e.g., Lopez v. Agriculture, EEOC No. 01A04897 (2000).

Bottom Line:  The minimum actions necessary to hold a federal civil servant accountable are significant in number and degree. Adding Extra Options to a collective bargaining agreement, agency policy, or individual counselor’s practice does the agency no good and carries with it the possibility wasted resources and appeal loss. Leonardo de Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” He would have fit in well here at FELTG.

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