FSGB: A Separation For Cause Case That Will Make You Weep

The FSGB Annual Report for 2020 includes a brief summary of a separation for cause case:
“In FSGB Case No. 2019-034, the Board found that the agency did not establish cause to separate the charged employee from the Foreign Service because the Deciding Official did not consider evidence of personality problems or more serious mental issues as a mitigating circumstance in determining whether separation was appropriate, as required by the Douglas Factors.2 The employee in the case was charged with improper personal conduct with a pattern of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct toward colleagues. The agency’s Bureau of Medical Services determined that the charged employee exhibited behavior or symptoms that impaired his reliability, judgment, or trustworthiness which was reported to management in a report of security investigation. The Deciding Official did not take into consideration those findings when proposing separation. The agency filed a motion for reconsideration which was ultimately denied. The Board suggested that the Department consider whether the charged employee was eligible for disability retirement.”
Excerpts below from the Record of Proceeding (ROP) posted via FSGB (multiple files related to this case).
FSGB Case No. 2019-034/July 2, 2020:

Held – The Board found that the Department of State (the “Department” or “agency”) did not establish cause to separate the charged employee from the Foreign Service because the Deciding Official (“DO”) did not consider evidence of his personality problems as a mitigating circumstance. The Board was persuaded by evidence in the record that the agency should exercise its authority to initiate, as an alternative to separation, the option of a disability retirement, pursuant to 3 FAM 6164.3(a).

Case Summary – The Department charged the employee with Improper Personal Conduct based upon a pattern of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct toward colleagues, primarily hundreds of unwanted emails and text messages with sexual content. The Department’s Bureau of Medical Services (“MED”) had conducted a mental health evaluation of the charged employee and concluded that “to a reasonable degree of certainty,” the charged employee exhibited “behavior or symptoms (which may not rise to the level of formal diagnosis) of an emotional, mental or personality condition that may impair his reliability, judgment or trustworthiness.”

The DO determined that the charged employee committed the charged offenses and that there were no mitigating circumstances. In finding no mitigating circumstances, the DO attested in the separation hearing that she did not take into consideration either the charged employee’s emotional, mental or personality condition that MED identified or the charged employee’s emails to coworkers that included references to his communications with divine beings as well as references to his own possible mental illness. The DO notified the charged employee of her proposal to separate him from the Foreign Service and provided him the opportunity to reply in person or in writing. The DO recommended separating the charged employee to promote the efficiency of the Service. The charged employee did not respond in person or in writing to the DO’s notification of her proposal to separate him from the Service recommendation or participate in the separation hearing.

The Board found the Department did not establish cause to separate the charged employee because the DO did not consider the so-called Douglas Factor #11 on the agency’s checklist that relates to mitigating circumstances surrounding personality problems, and did not exercise the agency’s authority under 3 FAM 6164.3(a) to initiate a disability retirement on behalf of the charged employee as an alternative to disciplinary action.

Background via FSGB Case No. 2019-034R/September 24, 2020

Prior to the conduct that gave rise to the Department’s proposal to separate the charged  employee, he had 19 years of distinguished service.

In March 2015, the Department issued a Letter of Reprimand to the charged employee on  a charge of Improper Personal Conduct (“IPC”) for allegedly making “unwelcome comments of an inappropriate and sexual nature” to an intern at post. In January 2016, the charged employee was alleged to have engaged in sexual harassment. The Ambassador involuntarily curtailed the charged employee from an overseas post in February 2016. After his curtailment, the charged employee sent numerous personal emails to a former post colleague that she foundoffensive. Despite her request that he stop sending her messages, he continued to do so. Consequently, the former colleague filed a request for a protective order with a court and the request was granted.

The FSGB filing does not indicate what treatment resulted from MED’s evaluation.

— In January 2018, the DS Office REDACTED issued another ROI (involving different preliminary allegations), finding, inter alia, that the charged employee had demonstrated a predilection for self-aggrandizement, and had indicated his belief of hearing voices and instructions from God, the Devil, and the Virgin Mary.

— In October 2018, the charged employee’s security clearance was revoked.

— On March 21, 2019, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of the Bureau of Human Resources3 (the “DG”) notified the charged employee that the Department proposed to separate him for cause to promote the efficiency of the Service. The charged employee was charged with IPC based upon 87 specifications of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct and comments toward colleagues, primarily in emails and text messages with sexual content. The separation proposal was not based upon the charged employee’s loss of security clearance.

— Although the charged employee was offered an opportunity to provide an oral or written response to the DG’s March 21, 2019 proposal, he did not provide a response.

(Also see Secretary Mike Pompeo Swears-In New DGHR Carol Perez on March 15, 2019)

On June 20, 2019, the DG completed the so-called Douglas Factors Checklist, a compilation of aggravating and mitigating factors drawn from 3 FAM 4137 and from the decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board (the “MSPB”) in Douglas v. Veterans Administration, 5 MSPB 313 (1981). On that Checklist, the DG wrote “none” next to so-called Douglas Factor #11, “Mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense, such as unusual job tensions, personality problems . . . .”

(Also see  Snapshot: Douglas Factors)
(Also see 3 FAM 4138)

On August 18, 2019, the Department filed a Separation for Cause Proposal with the Board. The charged employee did not file a response to the proposal or participate in the hearing that the Board conducted by telephone on May 14, 2020. AFSA participated as amicus curiae.

The Board issued its Decision on July 2, 2020, finding that the Department had established by a preponderance of the evidence that the charged employee had engaged in the unprofessional and inappropriate conduct of which he was accused and that the charged employee’s conduct had a nexus to the efficiency of the Service. However, the Decision concluded that the Department had not established cause for separation of the charged employee when the DG did not comply with 3 FAM 4138 because she did not consider the Department’s version of Douglas Factor #11:

 Mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense, such as unusual job tensions, personality problems, harassment or bad faith, malice or provocation on the part of other(s) involved in the matter.

The Decision noted that the DG had written the word “none” next to Factor #11, yet in her testimony at the May 14, 2020 hearing, she opined that the charged employee “had abnormal behavior,” and that it was obvious “his behavior was not normal.”

[…]

In the instant case, the Department failed to establish cause for separation by a preponderance of the evidence because the Deciding Official (in this case the DG) had failed to consider a significant relevant factor, i.e., Douglas Factor #11 as embodied in the Department’s Douglas Factors Worksheet, which the Department applies in determining whether to propose separation of an employee or a disciplinary penalty.10
In a separate FSGB document: 2019-034 – 07-02-2020:

In her testimony at the May 14, 2020 hearing, however, when asked whether concerns were raised in her mind in relation to the DS decision to revoke the charged employee’s security clearance due to several factors, including psychological conditions, the DG opined that the charged employee “had abnormal behavior,” and that it was obvious “his behavior was not normal.” The DG added, however, that she did not consider personality problems as a mitigating circumstance for the charged employee because she is not a medical professional, thus not in a position to understand if he had a personality defect for “his entire life.” She pointed out that DS ROI #2 indicated that there were allegations that the charged employee had a recurring pattern of sexual harassment, beginning during his college years, but she had no evidence of that conduct in the record to consider. The DG emphasized that in cases of threats to employees in the workforce, it is DS that makes decisions about what they would like to do in terms of an employee’s ability to access agency facilities and information. She also stressed that she had no access to the Department’s Bureau of Medical Services (“MED”) Memorandum of Opinion concerning the charged employee to which DS referred in ROI

Diplomatic Security’s two Reports of Investigation (ROIs)

The Board found that two Reports of Investigation (“ROIs”) issued by the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (“DS”) contained sufficient information for the DG to deduce that the charged employee had, at least, personality problems and that the emails and text messages the charged employee sent to former colleagues, which formed the basis of the separation proposal, indicated that he had personality problems and possibly more serious mental impairment or illness. The Decision noted that Douglas Factor #11 required the DG to consider and weigh the charged employee’s apparent personality problems in determining the appropriate discipline.

The DG’s failure to consider personality problems as a mitigating factor was the basis for our conclusion that the Department had not established cause for separation.

Disability Retirement

In recognition of the incompatibility of the charged employee’s conduct with the efficiency of the Service, the Decision identified an alternative action that the Department’s own regulations establish when an employee’s inappropriate conduct may be caused by a medical condition, i.e., disability retirement. Specifically, 3 FAM 6164.2-3 authorizes the Department to initiate application for disability retirement on behalf of an employee if, inter alia, 1) the agency has issued a proposal to remove the employee, 2) the agency has a reasonable basis to conclude that illness may be the cause of the employee’s conduct which renders him unable to work satisfactorily, or 3) the employee is incompetent and there is no guardian willing to file an application on the employee’s behalf. The existence of any one of these three conditions is sufficient for the agency to initiate an action for disability retirement, and in the Decision the Board found that the conditions in 1) and 2), supra, were apparent in this case.

AFSA intervened

On September 2, 2020, the American Foreign Service Association (“AFSA”) filed a request to intervene in order to respond to the MFR8 which was not opposed by either the Department or the charged employee. The Board granted AFSA’s request to intervene on September 21, 2020.
[…]
AFSA also argues that the Board did not, as the Department asserts, shift the burden of proof to the Department regarding the charged employee’s mental health condition. Rather, without making a finding of its own regarding the cause of the charged employee’s behavior, the Board properly found that the Department had failed to consider the mitigating impact of findings already reached by two of its bureaus (MED and DS) that the charged employee had an emotional, mental or personality condition. Moreover, the charged employee’s mental illness and personality problems were evident from his many inappropriate emails. Because the DG did not consider the charged employee’s mental condition or personality problems as a mitigating factor, the burden did not shift to the charged employee to prove his mental health disability as an affirmative defense.

Department asserts “manifest injustice”

The Department asserts that the Board impermissibly substituted its judgment for that of the Department and established an unacceptably permissive precedent for tolerating unwelcome behavior towards coworkers, creating manifest injustice.

Burden of Proof:

The Decision does not, as the Department asserts, require every Deciding Official in every separation for cause case to opine on the employee’s mental state. The charged employee’s mental state in the instant case already had been flagged by DS in two ROIs, yet the DG failed to consider his personality problems as a mitigating factor.

Whether Disability Retirement is an Appropriate Alternative to Separation

The Department correctly notes that disability retirement is not listed as an “alternative sanction” in the chart of offenses and penalties at 3 FAM 4377. However, the introductory wording in 3 FAM 4373 states as follows:

The broad range of “possible” penalties in this subchapter is intended to serve as a general guideline. The proposing or deciding official, however, retains the discretion necessary to select the most appropriate action in any particular case in view of all the facts and circumstances.

Thus, the DG has the authority to consider an appropriate action in any case, in view of all of the facts and circumstances. The Board finds that initiating an application for disability retirement is one available appropriate action in the instant case.

FSGB 2019-034/July 2, 2020
We do not claim medical or psychological expertise, but, in our perusal of the record, we found indicators that the charged employee was described as exhibiting personality problems, and possibly more serious mental impairment or illness, from the emails and text messages he sent to former colleagues. For example, in specification 84, the charged employee is charged with offering to help Ms. B draft a complaint and get himself fired and committed to a mental hospital for the rest of his life. Also, in specifications 86 and 87, respectively, the charged employee is alleged to have first made reference to someone wanting him to commit suicide, then later noted asking God if his wife would commit suicide and informing Ms. D that the Virgin Mary told him to inform Ms. D that he knew she was worried that he might kill himself. Further, the charged employee displayed unusual behavior when he emailed Ms. B on June 6, 2017 at 8:31 p.m. that he had declined to see a psychiatrist before consulting attorneys about his options to file a lawsuit.11 That suggests the possibility that someone raised with the charged employee the matter of seeking a psychological consultation or examination.
The FSGB says that the Department has not established that the Board’s Decision in this matter constituted clear error or has caused manifest injustice and denied the Department’s Motion for Reconsideration.
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