Archive for federal employment

Should All VA Employees Blow the Whistle Now?

On June 23, 2017, the President signed into law the “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.” The title has a nice ring to it, but it is somewhat misleading. For most rank and file VA employees, the most significant effect of this law is a drastic reduction in their notice and appeal rights in the event they are accused of poor performance or misconduct. There may be, though, a silver lining to this dark cloud.

In an attempt to gain support for this legislation, lawmakers included provisions intended to protect whistleblowers in the VA from retaliation. Protection of whistleblowers is a desirable goal, and especially important in an agency that has seen a number of scandals brought to light by whistleblowers in recent years. The new law includes a provision that, “In the case of a covered individual seeking corrective action (or on behalf of whom corrective action is sought) from the Office of Special Counsel based on an alleged prohibited personnel practice described in section 2302(b) of Title 5, the Secretary may not remove, demote, or suspend such covered individual under subsection (a) without the approval of the Special Counsel under section 1214(f) of Title 5.” There is a similar provision for employees who have made whistleblower disclosures to the Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

Employees who have blown the whistle, therefore, have some additional protection from the fast track disciplinary actions permitted under the new law. Disclosures of wrongdoing can be filed or reported to the Office of Special Counsel at www.osc.gov. Any whistleblower disclosure made by an employee should be shared with the employee’s chain of command right away to help ensure protected status. After all, to be protected, the employee must blow the whistle before retaliation occurs, and the management official taking the action has to be aware of the disclosure.

An employee who is considering blowing the whistle, should review carefully (preferably with legal advice) whether your disclosure will be protected. Under the law, the term “whistleblower disclosure” means “any disclosure of information by an employee of the Department or individual applying to become an employee of the Department which the employee or individual reasonably believes evidences — (A) a violation of law, rule or regulation or (B) gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

If, after making such a disclosure, the employee experiences unlawful retaliation, including proposed disciplinary action, they should immediately report the retaliation to the Office of Special Counsel and request a stay of any personnel action. Employees should seek advice from an experienced federal employment lawyer as quickly as possible when filing with Office of Special Counsel, to help ensure that their disclosures are accurately and completely reported in their filing. Please contact the law office of Bonney, Allenberg & O’Reilly to schedule an initial consultation.

VA Employees’ Rights Eviscerated by New Law

On June 23, 2017, the President signed into law the “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.” The title has a nice ring to it, but it is somewhat misleading. For most rank and file VA employees, the most significant effect of this law is a drastic reduction in their notice and appeal rights in the event they are accused of poor performance or misconduct.

For example, prior to this law, most VA employees were entitled to 30 days written notice before being subjected to an adverse action (14 day suspension, demotion, or removal). The new law states that the notice period “may not exceed 15 business days.” Previously, an employee would usually have at least 14 days in which to respond to a proposed adverse action. The new law shortens the reply period to 7 business days. In performance cases, previously the employee was entitled to a Performance Improvement Period before an adverse action, if management felt the employee’s performance was unacceptable. Now, there is no such requirement, and the employee could be removed or demoted without any advance notice that their performance was lagging.

Equally problematic is the effect this law will have on appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Previously, in a misconduct case, the VA had to prove alleged misconduct by a preponderance of the evidence. Now, the VA has a reduced burden of proof of substantial evidence, making it much easier for the VA to remove or discipline employees for alleged misconduct even when the VA has very limited evidence to support the action. In addition, the MSPB is not permitted to mitigate the penalty. For example, before, if the VA tried to remove an employee for a very minor first offense, it would be likely that the MSPB would consider the penalty unreasonable. In that situation, the Administrative Judge could reduce the penalty. Now, the MSPB cannot even review the penalty. The rights of SES employees are curtailed even further.

It remains to be seen how the VA will use this new tool.   Will we see an improved workforce, or will we see a return to the spoils systems of civil service where retaliation, favoritism, and cronyism are unchecked? Either way, VA employees who are facing disciplinary action should seek the advice of an experienced federal employment lawyer at the earliest opportunity. Please contact the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg & O’Reilly to schedule an initial consultation.

Security Clearances in Federal Employment

Many federal government employees are required to hold or be eligible to hold security clearances due to the nature of their work.  In the federal government, security clearances add an additional layer of complication to workplace requirements, and when employees are faced with an allegation that may affect their continued ability to hold a security clearance, lots of questions and confusion are bound to arise.

For Department of Defense employees, the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudication Facility (DoDCAF) is primarily responsible for issuing security clearances to employees.  In making security clearance determinations, the DoDCAF relies upon certain adjudicative guidelines pertaining to certain types of behavior that may give rise to a concern about a person’s ability to hold a security clearance.  The adjudicative guidelines include Personal Conduct, Financial Considerations, Alcohol Consumption, Drug Involvement, Criminal Conduct, and a number of other items.  If the DoDCAF determines that one or more adjudicative guidelines may be applicable to a certain employee or applicant, the DoDCAF will issue a “Letter of Intent” to revoke or deny the person’s security clearance eligibility.  Every Letter of Intent includes a “Statement of Reasons” specifying the adjudicative guidelines that are called into question and the facts giving rise to the Letter of Intent.  The employee is then given the opportunity to respond in writing to the Letter of Intent by explaining any and all mitigating conditions and providing relevant documentation to support a finding that any security concern has been sufficiently mitigated.

If the DoDCAF ultimately decides to revoke or deny a person’s security clearance eligibility, the person will typically be able to elect to proceed to a personal appearance before an Administrative Judge who works for the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA).  The assigned Administrative Judge will then conduct a hearing and render a recommendation to the DoD Personnel Security Appeals Board (PSAB), which will then make a final determination regarding the person’s eligibility to hold a security clearance.

It is important to take the security clearance process very seriously from start to finish, as an employee’s ability to hold a security clearance is often a condition of their employment.  If the DoDCAF issues a final decision ultimately revoking or denying an employee’s security clearance eligibility, such a decision can lead to adverse action procedures within that employee’s federal employment.

If you have been issued a Letter of Intent to revoke or deny your security clearance eligibility and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.

The Golden Rule: “Obey Now, Grieve Later”

It can be difficult to follow an instruction from a supervisor that an employee strongly believes is incorrect, unwarranted, or not applicable to the duties of his or her assigned position. However, for federal government employees, it is usually best to follow the adage, “Obey now, grieve later.” If a federal government employee does not follow an instruction, direction, or order of a supervisor in his or her chain of command, that employee can be subjected to possible disciplinary action. Charges such as “insubordination,” “failure to follow a direct order,” and “failure to follow instructions” are common charges levied on federal government employees in disciplinary proceedings based on allegations that the employee refused to follow a supervisor’s instruction. Even if the basis for the supervisor’s instruction was completely meritless, an employee can still be subject to discipline for not following the supervisor’s instruction. See AFGE, Local 1367 and Lackland Air Force Base (Fed. Arb. 01/26/2011) (arbitration decision upholding a five-day suspension against an employee who did not follow his supervisor’s instructions due to his belief that the instructions were not in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement or past practices).

Even though employees should not typically refuse to obey instructions, an employee usually can express dissent, in a professional manner, with the instruction and not be subjected to discipline so long as the employee still obeys the instruction. For instance, if a supervisor assigns an employee a work task that would typically be handled by an employee at a higher grade level, the assigned employee may express to the supervisor her belief that the assigned work task is outside of her position description. As long as the employee does not refuse to perform the work task, she should not be disciplined simply for advising the supervisor of her belief.

An exception to the “obey now, grieve later” rule exists with regards to instructions that, if followed, could result in irreparable harm such as imminent physical danger. See Larson v. Dep’t of Army, 91 MSPR 511 (MSPB 2002). However, the vast majority of instructions issued by supervisors are not the kinds of instructions that would lead to irreparable harm. In those instances in which the employee does not have a reasonable safety concern, the “obey now, grieve later” doctrine will typically apply.

Following an instruction that seems wasteful, wrong, or outside the scope of the assigned employee’s duties can understandably be frustrating. However, if an employee follows the “Obey Now, Grieve Later” rule of thumb, the negative consequences are more likely to fall upon the employing Agency instead of the employee. For example, if a supervisor were to instruct an employee to work overtime without corresponding compensation, this can lead to a grievance to recoup the back pay the employee deserves for working the overtime. If an employee is instructed to use annual leave in order to meet with a Union steward when the employee should have been carried in an “official time” status for the meeting, a grievance can be filed to reimburse the employee for the annual leave used. Therefore, in nearly every circumstance, an employee is much better off following the “obey now, grieve later” rule than risking potential discipline for refusing to follow an instruction.

If you have an employment matter and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.

MSPB Reverses Five-Year Enforced Leave Suspension

Although the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB or Board) is currently suffering from a lack of quorum and resulting inability to issue new decisions (Read the Press Release about the lack of quorum Here), the Board appears to have been very busy during the holiday season issuing decisions prior to the departure of MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann.

In one Nonprecedential Final Order from the Board, issued December 20, 2016, the MSPB reversed the enforced leave suspension of a postal employee who had been placed in an enforced leave suspension status nearly five (5) years earlier. The Appellant, represented by Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. for the entire five (5) year process, had been placed on enforced leave and effectively prohibited from working starting at the beginning of 2012. The Agency’s argument for placing the employee on enforced leave was because the Agency believed the employee’s medical restrictions did not permit her to work any more than six (6) hours per day.

The employee filed an appeal to the MSPB Washington Regional Office in 2012 based on her placement on enforced leave, but the appeal was dismissed by an Administrative Judge for lack of jurisdiction. After further appeal (called a “Petition for Review”) to the full Board, the MSPB issued a decision remanding the appeal back to the Washington Regional Office and finding that the employee’s placement on enforced leave constituted a suspension status over which the MSPB had jurisdiction. Abbott v. U.S. Postal Service, 121 MSPR 294 (2014). This decision was discussed in a Prior Blog Post.

On remand, the Administrative Judge affirmed the Agency’s suspension action, and a second Petition for Review was filed with the MSPB. Finally, after nearly five (5) years of litigation, the Board agreed that the Agency’s placement of the employee on enforced leave was not supported by the evidence. While the Agency had argued that the employee’s medical restrictions did not permit her to work an 8-hour day, the Board pointed out that the Agency disregarded information from the employee’s doctor to the contrary. The MSPB therefore reversed the enforced leave suspension action “because the agency did not prove by preponderant evidence that the appellant could only work a 6-hour day.” Abbott v. U.S. Postal Service, DC-0752-12-0366-B-1 (Nonprecedential), at ¶19. Read the Full Final Order Here.

If you feel you have been subjected to an unwarranted personnel action and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys. CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE, AND CASE RESULTS FROM ONE CASE DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE. 

Arbitration Award for Air Reserve Technician (ART) Bargaining Unit Employees of NAIL Local 7

In National Association of Independent Labor (NAIL), Local 7 and U.S. Department of the Air Force, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, FMCS No. 16-51813 (August 11, 2016), the National Association of Independent Labor (NAIL), represented at arbitration by Bonney, Allenberg & O’Reilly, P.C., received an arbitration award that prevents the Air Force from requiring that Air Reserve Technicians (ARTs) wear their military uniforms while in civilian employment status.  The arbitration decision found the Air Force’s requirement that the ARTs wear their military uniforms while in civilian employment status to be contrary to 10 U.S.C. Section 772.  Arbitrator Ellen Saltzman wrote, in part, that the Agency was to “immediately cease and desist requiring ARTs to wear a military uniform while working in their civilian job.”  The full text of the arbitration award can be read by clicking on the following link: NAIL, Local 7 and U.S. Dep’t of Air Force, 4th Fighter Wing, SJAFB, FMCS No. 16-51813 (August 11, 2016).

If you are a federal government employee in need of legal representation and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney from our office, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.  CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE, AND CASE RESULTS FROM ONE CASE DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE. 

EEO Investigations, Part 2 of 2: Think About the End Before You Amend When it Comes to EEO Complaints

Any time a federal government worker is thinking about filing an EEO complaint, some of the most significant considerations involve the potential relief or remedy you could receive if you are successful in your EEO complaint.  Two of the most important questions to ask yourself are: (1) What do I want to happen as a result of my EEO complaint? and (2) What relief am I likely to get if I succeed in my EEO complaint?  An attorney specializing in federal employment law can likely assist with the second question, but only you can answer the first question.  If you have already become involved in the EEO complaint process and are considering filing an amendment to your EEO complaint based on subsequent discrimination against you, it is important to once again consider these two questions.

When trapped in a difficult work environment, it may seem like second nature for a federal employee to pick up the phone and call the EEO office whenever a possible discriminatory act is taken against them.  Federal employees certainly have the right to file EEO complaints when they feel that have been subjected to unlawful discrimination, and the EEOC takes the prohibition against reprisal for engaging in EEO activity very seriously.  However, it is important to consider your ultimate potential relief for each issue prior to amending an existing EEO complaint.

Within the federal government, EEO contact must be made within 45 calendar days of the discriminatory action, even if you already have an ongoing EEO complaint as to a previous matter.  If you have previously initiated EEO contact based on discrimination, and a subsequent discriminatory action is taken against you, you have the right to seek to amend your EEO complaint to include the subsequent discriminatory action.

In some cases, the employee is left with virtually no choice but to amend his or her EEO complaint.  As an example: an employee files an EEO complaint based on a discriminatory performance appraisal, and, while her EEO complaint is being investigated, she is subsequently reassigned to undesirable duties outside of her position description. If the employee (the “complainant”) amends her EEO complaint to include the issue of being tasked with undesirable duties, she will be able to request to have the reassignment canceled or reversed as potential relief through a successful EEO complaint.  By amending her complaint during the investigation stage, the complainant typically implicitly agrees to extend the timeframe to have her EEO complaint investigated.  Normally, the Agency is allowed 180 days after the date of the Complainant’s formal complaint of discrimination to investigate the complaint (see Part 1 for a discussion of the 180-day investigation timeframe).  However, if a Complainant amends her complaint, the Agency is typically afforded an additional 180 days after the date of the amendment to complete its investigation.  Specifically, when an amendment is filed, the Agency is required to complete the investigation within the earlier of 180 days after the filing of the last amendment or not later than 360 days after the filing of the original formal complaint of discrimination.  Amendments can therefore lead to delays in the EEO process by allowing the Agency more time to investigate.

For some people and in some situations, being able to amend their EEO complaints to include a subsequent discriminatory action is worth the extended investigation period.  In the example of the complainant who was subjected to the undesirable reassignment, if she did not amend her EEO complaint, she would not have the right to seek a reversal of the reassignment as part of her relief through the EEO process.  However, in a case where the subsequent discriminatory actions are not as egregious, there may be limited additional relief that can be awarded, or no additional relief at all, if the EEO complaint is amended.  It is therefore important to think seriously about what your additional relief may be when deciding whether to amend your EEO complaint to include a new issue.  If your ultimate decision is to amend your EEO complaint based on a new discriminatory incident, make sure to file the amendment within 45 calendar days of that new discriminatory incident.

If you are engaged in EEO activity, are considering filing an EEO complaint, or are considering filing an amendment to an existing EEO complaint and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.

EEO Investigations, Part 1 of 2: Keep the Agency Accountable for 180-day Investigations in EEO Cases

In EEO cases filed against federal government agencies, the EEOC allows for a 180-day investigation period starting from the date the complainant files his or her formal complaint of discrimination.  Specifically, the 180-day timeframe is set out in the EEOC’s Management Directive 110 (MD-110), which sets out policies, procedures, and guidance for federal sector discrimination complaints.  The MD-110 was recently revised, but still maintains the same 180-day timeframe in which to conduct the investigation into formal complaints of discrimination against federal agencies.

The MD-110 explains, “Agencies are responsible for conducting an appropriate investigation of complaints filed against them.”  This means that when a federal employee or applicant files a formal complaint of discrimination against a particular government agency, that agency is responsible for conducting and completing the investigation of the discrimination complaint.  Once the investigation has been completed, or once 180 days have passed since the complainant filed his or her formal discrimination complaint, the complainant then has the opportunity to request a hearing before an EEOC Administrative Judge.

The MD-110 obligates the responsible Agency to complete the investigation with 180 days of the formal complaint being filed.  The 180-day timeframe can be extended by up to 90 days if the complainant agrees to such an extension.  The 180-day timeframe can also be extended by up to an additional 180 days in the event the complainant files an amendment to his or her complaint during the investigation phase (see Part 2 for a discussion of EEO amendments).  If an Agency fails to meet its deadline to complete the investigation, once a hearing request is filed and an Administrative Judge is assigned to the case, the Judge can potentially order sanctions against the Agency for failing to timely complete the investigation.  Sanctions can range in severity, and in a number of cases, EEOC Administrative Judges and the EEOC itself have found the most severe form of sanction – a default judgment in the complainant’s favor – to be warranted against the Agency.

In an attempt to avoid potentially severe sanctions, agencies often will request that complainants agree to extend the investigative period.  While every case is different, in many circumstances, it does not benefit the complainant to agree to an extension.  When (1) the complainant does not agree to the investigation, (2) no amendment has been filed during the applicable time frame (see Part 2 for a discussion of EEO amendments), and (3) the Agency still does not complete the investigation within the allotted 180 days, the complainant may be able to make a motion for the EEOC Administrative Judge to impose sanctions against the Agency for the untimely investigation.

If you have questions about the federal sector EEO complaint process that you would like to address with one of our attorneys, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg& O’Reilly, P.C., to schedule an initial consultation.

MSPB Reverses Indefinite Suspensions Pending Review of Security Clearances

US-MeritSystemsProtectionBoard-Seal In a series of recent decisions, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) reversed the indefinite suspensions of federal government employees who had been suspended from their civil service jobs without pay pending decisions regarding the status of their security clearances.

The MSPB ordered the employing agencies to cancel the indefinite suspensions of the employees and pay corresponding back pay and benefits. Have you been affected by an indefinite suspension pending an outcome regarding the status of your security clearance? If so, contact the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg & O’Reilly regarding your specific needs at 757-460-3477.

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