Federal employees may be subject to discipline for off-duty misconduct

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Federal agencies may discipline employees for off-duty misconduct in certain circumstances.  However, the agency must establish a “nexus,” or connection, between off-duty actions and the efficiency of the service.  In other words, the agency must prove at least one of the following:

  • The misconduct is so egregious that a connection with the efficiency of the agency is presumed;
  • The misconduct adversely affects the employee’s job performance or the agency’s trust and confidence in the employee’s ability to perform; or
  • The misconduct adversely affected the agency’s mission.

Is the off-duty misconduct egregious?

Whether misconduct is “egregious” is fact-specific.  Just because the misconduct is illegal, does not necessarily mean it is egregious for disciplinary purposes.  However, violent crimes against persons and sexual abuse of minors are generally egregious enough to establish nexus.

Does the misconduct negatively impact job performance or the agency’s trust and confidence in the employee’s performance?

In proposing discipline, the agency will argue that it no longer has confidence in the employee’s performance.  Employees who engaged in misconduct related to their work duties face an uphill battle.  For example, an off-duty DUI will be difficult to overcome if the employee’s work duties including operating a motor vehicle.

However, employees can provide evidence to show that their misconduct did not affect their performance.  It is helpful if the employee received a positive performance rating or a grade increase after the misconduct occurred.  It is good evidence if the agency knew about the off-duty misconduct but permitted the employee to continue performing his or her duties — instead of being reassigned or put on leave.

Did the misconduct adversely affect the agency’s mission?

Many different factors may determine whether off-duty actions adversely affect the agency’s mission.  Off-duty misconduct may adversely affect the agency’s mission if it occurred at a work facility or work-related event.  The same is true for off-duty misconduct involving other federal employees or supervisors.  Negative publicity given to the off-duty misconduct may also adversely affect the agency’s mission.

Contact Alan Lescht and Associates today if you questions about being disciplined for off-duty misconduct.  Call us at (202) 463-6036, or email us. We offer strategic and results-driven legal services to federal government employees around the world.

OPM changes rules for use of administrative leave

The Office of Personnel Management has proposed new rules on administrative leave. The proposed rules create strict guidelines for approving administrative leave. They also require second-level review by an agency official to “help prevent inappropriate uses and ensure that administrative leave is used sparingly.” Final rules are set to be issued by September 19, 2017.

The proposed rules require agencies to keep records and submit data reports that identify each instance of administrative leave, investigatory leave, notice leave, and weather and safety leave. The rules also prohibit any employee from being on administrative leave for more than 10 days in a calendar year.

Specific justification required for administrative leave

If finalized, agencies would have to justify all use of administrative leave by showing one of the following:

  • The employee’s absence directly relates to the agency’s mission. For example, an agency could grant administrative leave for an employee to attend a professional meeting related to the agency’s mission.
  • The employee is absent from work in order to attend an official agency-sponsored activity, such as a blood drive at an agency facility.
  • The employee’s absence would be in the best interest of the agency or the government as a whole. Examples include allowing employees to participate in employee wellness events, such as flu vaccines, and ensuring employees have the opportunity to vote.

Administrative leave prohibited for certain reasons

According to the proposed rules, agencies could not grant administrative leave to:

  • Mark the memory of a deceased federal official;
  • Permit an employee to participate in an event for his/her personal benefit or the benefit of an outside organization;
  • Award an employee for job performance; or
  • Allow an employee to participate in volunteer work that the agency does not officially sponsor.

Importantly, the proposed rules state that investigative and notice leave are allowed only if an agency official determines that the employee’s presence at work could pose a threat to the employee or others, result in loss or damage to government property, result in destruction of evidence relevant to an investigation, or otherwise jeopardize the legitimacy of government interests. Before using these options, agencies must consider alternatives to avoid or minimize the use of paid leave, such as changing the employee’s duties or work location.

Call Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., at (202) 463-6036, or email us, if you questions about federal employee administrative leave. We offer strategic and results-driven legal services to federal government employees around the world.

Navigating the EEO process for congressional employees

The Capitol

Federal government employees have to follow a specific procedure to file an EEO complaint of discrimination or retaliation.  The EEO process for employees within the legislative branch of government is unique from the process for other government employees.

Where do I file my EEO complaint?   

The Office of Compliance (OOC) is charged with processing EEO complaints for most legislative employees, including those employed by:

  • S. House of Representatives
  • S. Senate
  • S. Capitol Police
  • Congressional Budget Office
  • Office of the Architect of the Capitol
  • Office of the Attending Physician
  • Office of Compliance and
  • Office of Congressional Accessibility Services.[1]

What do I do first?

You must file a request for counseling with OOC within 180 days of the act of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.  Identifying your claims is critical because only claims specifically listed in the request for counseling may proceed through the EEO process.

The counseling period lasts for 30 days.

What happens after counseling?

After the counseling period, you have 15 days to file a request for mediation with the OOC.   Mediation is a mandatory settlement conference between you and your employer.  During mediation, a mediator will attempt to resolve the complaint.

What do I do if my case doesn’t settle at mediation?  

If you do not reach a settlement at mediation, you may file a lawsuit in federal district court.  You must file a lawsuit no earlier than 30-days after the end of mediation, but no later than 90-days after mediation concludes.  Alternatively, you may file a request for a hearing before a hearing officer at the OOC.

Should I request a hearing or file a lawsuit?

This is an important decision that depends on a variety of factors including the facts of your case, the defense arguments raised at mediation, and general case strategy.  Making this decision requires the expertise of a lawyer who has argued before both hearing officers at the OOC and federal district court judges.

The legislative branch process is very technical and separate from how EEO complaints are processed in the executive branch.  Contact Alan Lescht and Associates today if you are a legislative employee who has been subjected to discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

 

[1] Library of Congress (LOC) employees follow a different process.

Employees have rights when facing proposed discipline

Federal employees have rights when they receive a notice of proposed discipline, such as proposed removal, proposed demotion, or proposed suspension of more than 14 days.

Except in certain circumstances, most federal employees are entitled to certain protections before they can be removed, demoted, or suspended for more than 14 days. Most federal workers have the following rights when they are facing one of these disciplinary actions:  (1) the right to written notice; (2) the right to review the evidence; (3) the right to representation; and (4) the right to respond.  5 U.S.C. § 7513; 5 C.F.R. § 752.404.

The right to written notice of proposed discipline

Before removing, demoting, or suspending an employee for more than 14 days, the agency must give the employee a written notice of the proposed discipline.  The notice of proposed discipline must describe the allegations against the employee (i.e., what type of misconduct or performance issue the employee is accused of) and what penalty the agency proposes to impose.

The right to review the evidence

The employee has the right to review any documents and any other evidence the agency relied upon in proposing the disciplinary action.  This evidence is frequently called “the documents relied upon” or “the record.”  Sometimes the proposing official or HR will automatically give the employee the documents relied upon.  However, the employee should ask for the documents and ask the agency to confirm that he/she received all of the documents relied upon.

The right to representation

The notice of proposed discipline should also state that the employee has the right to representation.  This means that the employee may enlist or retain a representative to aid him/her in responding to the notice of proposed discipline.  The representative may be a union representative, a private attorney, or any other person.  The employee should notify the agency that he/she has a representative connected to the proposed discipline.

The right to respond to the notice of proposed discipline

employee discipline

An employee has the right to respond in writing and orally to a notice of proposed removal, demotion, or suspension for more than 14 days.  The agency must give the employee a “reasonable” amount of time (i.e., not less than 7 days) to respond.  The notice of proposed discipline should state when the employee’s response is due.  An employee may ask the deciding official for an extension of time to submit his/her response.  The employee may submit his/her own evidence, including but not limited to statements or declarations from witnesses, with the written or oral response.

Contact Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., today if you are a federal employee who received a notice of proposed removal, proposed demotion, or proposed suspension for more than 14 days.  We offer strategic and results-driven legal services to federal government employees around the world.

Whistleblower protections under the Follow the Rules Act

On June 14, 2017, President Trump signed into law the Follow the Rules Act, an important extension of the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).

Background of the Follow the Rules Act

The WPA protects federal government employees from retaliation for complaining about the government’s dishonest or illegal activities. In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit made a decision interpreting the WPA in, Rainey v. Merit Systems Protection Board. The court held that the WPA protects employees who refuse to obey orders that would require violation of statutes. However, the WPA does not protect employees who refuse to obey orders that would require violation of rules or regulations.

Additional whistleblower protections

The Follow the Rules Act overturns the Rainey decision and broadens protections for employees. In other words, it prohibits agencies from taking personnel actions against employees who refuse orders that would require violations of laws, rules, or regulations.

In introducing the bill last year, Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI) gave the following example:

Congress directed the President to promulgate rules and regulations regarding sanctions against North Korea. Without the Follow the Rules Act, employees who refused to follow orders to violate North Korea sanctions would have no whistleblower protections.

Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said, “[W]e need to do all we can to ensure that federal employees are allowed to perform their jobs free from political pressure to violate laws, rules, and regulations.”

If your employer took an adverse personnel action against you for complaining about illegal or improper activity, contact Alan Lescht and Associates today. We offer results-driven legal services to federal employees around the world.

Employee discipline under the new VA reform bill

On June 13, 2017, the House joined the Senate in approving a VA reform bill aimed at making it easier to discipline employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  As President Trump has already stated he will sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk, it appears certain that substantial changes are going to be made to the VA disciplinary process.

A new procedure for employee discipline

First, the S. 1094 will create a new framework for the discipline of VA employees, speeding up the process significantly.  It will require the VA to give notice of proposed discipline, accept a response, and make a decision on the proposal within 15 days.  Non SES-employees will still have a right to appeal to the Merit System Protection Board, but must file the appeal within 10 days of the adverse action, as opposed to the current 30 day deadline.  Furthermore, the Board will be required to issue a decision on the case within 180 days.

While non-SES employees would still have the right to appeal to the Board, S. 1094 strips away  SES-employees right to appeal to the Board.  SES employees will need to appeal their discipline through an internal appeals process that will take no more than 21 days.  However, should the internal appeals decision still be adverse, the SES-employee may appeal the Agency’s decision to a U.S. District Court.

A lower standard of proof for discipline

Second, and perhaps most controversially, S.1094 establishes a new evidentiary standard used by the Board in reviewing issues of discipline.  The Board currently reviews removals and other adverse actions on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.  This means the Agency must prove it is more likely than not that the employee engaged in the charged misconduct.  The bill would change the standard to substantial evidence, which only requires the VA to show that there is relevant evidence to support the discipline.  This will make it easier for the VA to discipline employees and harder to win on appeal before the Board.

If you are a VA employee, and facing disciplinary action, contact Alan Lescht and Associates today.  We will help you navigate the federal disciplinary process.  Call us at (202) 462-6036 or email us to schedule a consultation with an experienced federal employment attorney.

RIFs in the Trump Era: Reemployment rights after a RIF

Welcome back to our series on RIFs in the Trump era. If you missed Parts One and Two of the series, click here. Today is our final installment of the series, where we will discuss reemployment rights after a RIF.

What are reemployment rights?

Employees who are separated due to a RIF have reemployment priority rights. Agencies use a reemployment priority list (“RPL”) to rehire employees separated as part of a RIF. In filling any vacancies that arise after a RIF, an agency must give priority to certain former employees on the RPL over certain outside job applicants. Agencies are also permitted to consider RPL registrants before considering internal candidates.

Establishing an RPL

An agency must establish and maintain an RPL for each area in which it separates eligible competitive service employees by RIF. Employees are not required to participate in this list and will not automatically be placed on the list. An agency must give employees information about the list when it issues a notice of separation. The former employee must complete and submit the RPL application on or before the RIF separation date to register for the program.

Reemployment and appeals

To be appointed to a vacant position through an RPL, an employee must meet all requirements for the vacant position. The agency will use a numerical scoring system to rank applicants.

What if the agency does not follow the RPL? An employee can appeal to the MSPB if he believes his reemployment rights were violated.

Questions about RIFs?

Do you feel that your agency improperly failed to consider your reemployment rights? Protecting your job is our job. Contact Alan Lescht and Associates today. Call us at (202) 536-3315 or email Alan.

Ins and outs of suitability determinations

We posted a news update last week about how Trump’s hiring freeze will affect new federal employees who have not yet been deemed suitable for employment. Read below to learn more about suitability determinations.

Who is required to undergo suitability determinations?

Positions requiring a suitability determination are those in the competitive service, positions in the excepted service where the employee can be noncompetitively converted to the competitive service, and career appointments to a position in the Senior Executive Service. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is tasked with making suitability determinations for new federal employees.

Making suitability determinations

The following factors are considered in determining whether an individual is suitable for federal employment:

  • Misconduct or negligence in employment;
  • Criminal or dishonest conduct;
  • Material, intentional false statement, or deception or fraud in examination of the appointee;
  • Alcohol abuse, without evidence of substantial rehabilitation;
  • Illegal use of narcotics;
  • Knowing or willful engagement in acts or activities designed to overthrow the U.S. government.

What else will OPM consider?

OPM may also consider the following:

  • The nature of the position for which the person is applying for;
  • The nature and seriousness of the conduct;
  • The circumstances surrounding the conduct;
  • The recency of the conduct;
  • The age of the person involved at the time of the conduct;
  • Contributing societal conditions;
  • The absence or presence of rehabilitation or efforts towards rehabilitation.

Can suitability be challenged after appointment?

Yes! OPM may initiate a suitability action at any time. OPM is required to notify an employee in writing of the proposed action, and allow the employee to respond in writing. You are permitted to hire a lawyer if you are facing a proposed suitability action.

Successful suitability cases

  • We were retained by a recent college graduate who received a job offer from the federal government. On his suitability questionnaire, he honestly disclosed his prior drug use and arrest for underage drinking. The government found him unsuitable for federal employment. Our firm submitted a response, arguing that the client had been completely rehabilitated. He graduated from college with honors, was an excellent employee at his prior job, and had a new group of friends. We also emphasized that recreational drug use was very common among college-aged people. The government reversed its decision and allowed our client to begin his job.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection – A federal employee with over 8 years of federal service contacted us after she received a proposal to remove her from her position and the federal service due to a negative suitability determination based on allegations that she had engaged in misconduct/negligence in employment and dishonest conduct related to her disclosures in her job application. We submitted a written response demonstrating that she had in fact provided honest disclosures and many of the cited incidents were verbal warnings that did not require disclosure. Based on this submission, the agency reinstated her and determined that our client had illustrated that she did not commit the infractions alleged.
  • Peace Corps – A federal employee contacted us after receiving a proposal to terminate his employment as a result of an adverse suitability determination based on allegations that he made material, intentional false statements on his declaration for federal employment. We submitted a response to the proposal demonstrating that the employee misunderstood a particular question and believed that he had responded truthfully on his declaration for employment. The agency overturned the adverse suitability determination and cancelled his proposed removal.

If you have questions about suitability determinations or if you are facing a purposed action, contact Alan Lescht and Associates today. Call us at (202) 463-6036, or send us an email.

Check back next week for a discussion of security clearances.

Are federal workers just faceless bureaucrats?

“Federal employees support our troops stateside and abroad, fight crime and terrorism and protect our borders. They combat forest fires, inspect our roads and bridges and ensure our aviation system is the safest in the world. They guard and enhance our national parks and lands, guarantee seniors receive their Social Security benefits and process and deliver mail to every address in every type of weather.”

The answer to the question posed in the title of this post is an emphatic “No!”

Kori Keller, in an opinion published on The Hill, laments President Trump’s executive order that put a hiring freeze on federal workers. We’ve covered this in our handy infographic on the hiring freeze, but Keller makes a few interesting points, such as that federal workers represent only 1.9 percent of the national workforce. And, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric about “draining the swamp,” these 1.9 percent of federal workers aren’t just in D.C. – they’re all over the country performing vital functions.

Think mail carriers and forest rangers and firefighters. It’s not “just” those who work in office settings (which, by the way, is also the setting of millions of Americans working in the private sector).

As we wrote on our infographic post (see link above), there could be many unintended consequences to federal employees, even those who still have jobs, which brings us to the next point in this post.

At-will employment in the federal sector?

If this executive order was the first step in the Trump administration’s efforts to “drain the swamp,” you’ll now find in the National Review a call to make all federal employees fire-able. “There shouldn’t be a permanent bureaucracy that can thwart the will of a president,” Grant Starrett argues. “Congress should pass a law to make all federal employees serve at will – just like Americans in the private sector.”

In his article, Starrett makes lots of references to faceless “bureaucrats,” as though they weren’t those who Keller defends. It’s one opinion against another, but when it comes to treating people with dignity, and not assuming they’re part of a swamp, Keller’s opinion and others like it should win out every time.

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