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.