By William Wiley

Twice a year here at FELTG, we present an audio conference that we bill as an update on the law. Starting this fall in our next offering, we’re going to add a new twist. We’re going to highlight not only any tweaks to the existing law, but also call out those agencies that continue to make stupid mistakes, causing them to lose charges and cases that should not have been lost.

That’s right. No more Mister Nice Guy. After 15 years of trying to teach agency representatives how to win cases, protect employee rights, and save us taxpayers a bucket-load of money when you screw up, we’re going to tell it like it is. Yes, you lose cases sometimes because the members at  MSPB get a little screwy and try to create foolish new law (e.g., the comparator employee Terrible Trilogy, Miller reassignment only if it makes the employee happy, prior discipline as progressive discipline only for the same category of misconduct). And sometimes you lose cases because the judge weights your evidence more lightly than you thought warranted. But do you know the Number One reason agencies lose cases? No, you don’t, because you haven’t read all the Board’s decisions.

Fortunately, we have here at FELTG. And the Number One Reason agency removals are set aside on appeal is … (drum roll, please) … practitioner error. That’s right. Some agency employee, attorney or Human Resources specialist, did something wrong. And we are TIRED OF IT. We’ve been out here for 15 years, a dozen times a year or more, telling you agency practitioners how to win cases. And some of you still don’t get it. Federal employment law is our craft, for goodness sakes. If you claim to be one of us, then you must properly and consistently practice our craft. And waaaaaaay to many agencies are relying on practitioners who don’t know this work, to do this work.

Let’s take just one topic: charging. Our FELTG colleague, author, and Instructor Emeritus Renn Fowler highlighted this issue all the way back in the mid-90s. MSPB and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals are very fussy about the way an agency frames a charge. Something about Constitutional due process and the Magna Carta providing inalienable rights to federal employees. So for at least 20 years, those of us who teach employment law to federal agencies have been pounding away at the critical nature of the drafting of a charge in a proposal letter. By now, federal agencies with even a modicum of knowledge should have picked up on how to do this.

Yet too many haven’t.

We’ll be covering this in more detail in the fall webinar, but here’s a little taste of some recent evidence that some employment law practitioners do not know the basics:

Reid v. Air Force, CH-0752-14-0849-I-1 (2016): The misbehaving supervisor had a way of saying and doing things relative to the breasts and buttocks of other employees that were simply inappropriate in a federal workplace. When the agency finally got around to proposing that she be fired, one of the charges it relied on was “Touching and making a statement about the breast size” of another employee. And all of you certified practitioners who have completed our famous MSPB Law Week just about choked on your morning coffee when you saw that conjunctive “and” in the middle of this charge. Because you know that the law for nearly a quarter of a century requires that an agency prove both sides of a conjunctive change that is joined by an “and.” As the agency proved the touching but not the making a statement, the charge failed.

Bennett v. DVA, CH-0752-15-0367-I-1 (2016): Although the Board conceded that the appellant had a record of troubling behavior, it reversed the agency’s removal and put Mr. Bennett back to work because it simply could not “uphold his removal by affirming a poorly drafted charge.” And the horrific charge? Eerily similar to one we use as a bad example in our FELTG on-site one-day Charges seminar: “Disrespectful, intimidating language toward a supervisor/Conduct unbecoming a Federal employee.” Was it disrespectful? Was it intimidating? Was it both? And how’s all that related to unbecoming conduct? Would the conduct have been “becoming” if appellant was NOT a federal employee? Just think of all the good DVA could have done for our vets with the money it has to spend to pay this guy’s back pay. At least, a nice balloon party.

We’ve got more. So sign up for our Update webinar, if you can take pain and humiliation. If you want Mr. Nice Guy, go talk to an EAP counselor. If you want to learn how to be a better practitioner and not embarrass your agency and the rest of us in the same profession, come to our seminars. Learn this business. Everybody makes mistakes, but there are no excuses for mistakes that could (and should) have been easily avoided. [email protected]

 

 

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