FSGB Case: Why You Should Not/Not Take Your Hard Drive With You When Departing Post

13 GoingOn 14: Help Keep the Blog Going For 2021 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27

 

The FSGB Annual Report for 2021 mentions a disciplinary case where  the Board affirmed the agency’s decision in a case concerning an information security violation (FSGB Case No. 2018-030). So we went and looked up the case which includes Charge 1 for failure to follow proper security procedures:

12 FAM 625.2-2 Removal of Microcomputers, Media and Software
Personnel are prohibited from removing U.S. Government microcomputers or media from Department premises without the prior written approval of the [Information Systems Security Officer] ISSO and additionally, if abroad, the RSO or [Post Security Officer] PSO.

And Charge 2 for failure to safeguard government property:

12 FAM 622.1-7 Protection of Media and Output
… (b)(2) Abroad: Media shipped between posts must be sent at a minimum by controlled shipment.
( c) The data center manager and the system manager must label removable media either UNCLASSIFIED or SBU.

Overview via ROP:
Held – The Department of State (Department, agency) has established via preponderant evidence that grievant violated Department regulation both in removing a Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer and taking it with him to his next post, and in failing to comply with the requirement to use a controlled shipment in returning it to post. On review, the Board finds that the proposed penalty is reasonable.
Case Summary – Grievant, a removed the Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer when leaving post in and took it on to his next post without reporting his action or seeking permission from the Information Systems Security Officer or the Regional Security Officer at post. When the RSO in asked him to return the hard drive, grievant mailed it back to post via an uncontrolled shipment, but it never arrived. The Department charged him with Failing to Follow Proper Security Procedures for removing the hard drive without permission, and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, for failing to return the hard drive in conformity with regulatory requirements for a controlled shipment.
Grievant appealed to this Board on the grounds that the Department had failed to prove by preponderant evidence that his stated method of shipment of the hard drive was not, as he contended, compliant with the rules for a controlled shipment; that the Department had failed to take into account the mitigating circumstances of a toxic atmosphere and widespread wrongdoing at post; that the Department had misapplied the appropriate penalty considerations (Douglas factors) and chosen inapposite comparator cases; and that the penalty was disproportionate, as the hard drive was only SBU, in contrast with classified documents involved in the comparator cases.
The Board determined that the Department met its burden of proving the charges of Failure to Follow Proper Security Procedures and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, that the penalty imposed was not inconsistent with comparator cases, and that the Douglas factors were properly applied.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Background via ROP:

Grievant is an FO-02 REDACTED who began his Foreign Service career as an REDACTED in 2001. At the time of the initial event giving rise to this grievance, he was serving as head of the management section in REDACTED a position he held from October 2012 until his voluntary curtailment in September 2013.

During the course of his assignment to REDACTED by his own account, a number of conflicts developed between grievant and the Chargé d’Affaires (Chargé), the General Services Officer (GSO), who reported to grievant, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and other individuals at post. Grievant became frustrated that officials in Washington were not investigating or otherwise responding adequately, in his view, to his allegations of malfeasance, mismanagement and child abuse against various individuals serving in REDACTED Grievant decided to volunteer for an assignment at REDACTED , that required immediate voluntary curtailment from REDACTED.

Just before his departure from post in September 2013, grievant became concerned that a colleague or colleagues would attempt to retaliate against him for his claimed knowledge of irregularities in post management and individual malfeasance, or that a subordinate would file a grievance based on a negative EER written by grievant. He stated that he wished, in his own defense and to expose mismanagement, to bring with him numerous documents and emails proving his allegations, but was unable to “download” or print them, as they were too big. (The documents he stated he would need for this purpose included a .pst file of all emails he had sent or received in his time at post, as well as a number of other unspecified documents.) He therefore decided, under pressure of time, to remove the SBU hard drive from his computer and take it with him.1

Grievant states that he received oral permission to take the hard drive from a local employee in the IT section, whose name he did not know or remember. He chose not to inform or request permission from the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and the Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO) in REDACTED as required by the FAM, because the ISSO was away from post and grievant thought the RSO would refuse him permission because the documents grievant wanted to preserve implicated the RSO in wrongdoing. He stated that he needed to physically take the hard drive in order to “preserve the data” to potentially present to investigating authorities in Washington, and “my thought was to take everything I could should something come up.”2 He then took the hard drive with him upon departing post. After removing the hard drive and leaving post, grievant took no further action to report to any investigating body the alleged irregularities and malfeasance in REDACTED. He explained to the Deputy Assistant Secretary reviewing the proposed penalty that “since no one seemed to care, I didn’t.”3

A local employee subsequently reported his removal of the hard drive to the RSO. At some unspecified point after grievant’s arrival in REDACTED , the Regional Security Officer in REDACTED contacted him to request return of the hard drive.4 However, despite grievant’s assertions that he attempted to return it, the hard drive never arrived back in REDACTED. At some later point, the RSO reported the incident to Diplomatic Security (DS); in a subsequent DS interview on July 15, 2016, grievant stated that he had “attempted to return the drive via packaging sent back to the [REDACTED Embassy [diplomatic] pouch office on board a post support flight [a supply flight between REDACTED and REDACTED operated by a U.S. contracting company], ….”5 He had no further information during that interview about exactly how or when he had done so, or the current whereabouts of the hard drive.

In its decision, the FSGB concluded:

We therefore find that the Department’s choice of penalty, in a case involving both unauthorized removal of a sensitive item of media, and subsequent failure to return it, as required, via a controlled shipment, resulting in loss of the item and potential compromise of personally identifiable information pertaining to the U.S. diplomats serving abroad, is reasonable.64 The Department has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safeguarding and preservation of sensitive agency materials. As such, there is a clear nexus between the proven charges and the efficiency of the Service.

###

Foreign Service Grievance Board Annual Report 2020-Statistics (3/1/21) – Updated

13 GoingOn 14: Help Keep the Blog Going For 2021 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27

 

Update 3/30:  A source with insight into the FSGB process informed us that  the new metric starts counting the days when the file is complete and ready for adjudication.  Prior to file completion, processing times depend heavily on how promptly the grievant and agencies provide documentation.  It appears that the FSGB want to focus on the period that is totally under the FSGB’s control.  That’s understandable but that does not give a full picture. The source agreed that it would have been useful to also report the total processing time as previously calculated. There’s no reason why FSGB can’t include the processing time from ROP closure to decision, as well as the total processing time as it has done in the past. We also learned that to keep cases moving forward during the October 2020 to mid-February 2021 staffing gaps, the remaining 11 FSGB members reportedly had to increased their case work hours on average by about 21 percent. Some cases were also reportedly judged by two-member panels instead of the usual three-member panels. 

Last December, AFSA called on then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fulfill his statutory responsibility (22 U.S.C. 4135b) to make appointments to the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB). Eight seats on that board have been vacant since October 1 due to inaction on their nominations. “The nomination paperwork was transmitted to Secretary Pompeo’s staff on or before August 28, 2020, giving him at least four weeks to act prior to the September 30 expiration of the terms of office of the eight positions. If Secretary Pompeo had adverse information on any nominees, he could have allowed the Foreign Service agencies and AFSA to submit replacement nominations prior to September 30. Unfortunately, Secretary Pompeo has taken no action over the past three months.”
In the March 2021 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, AFSA Retiree Representative John Naland wrote that  “Secretary Pompeo left office without acting on the nominations, leaving it to his successor to fulfill that responsibility. Secretary Antony Blinken did so within two weeks of taking office. Perhaps by the time a future historian finds this column, Secretary Pompeo will have explained his failure to act. But my impression today as the AFSA Governing Board member charged with overseeing the annual FSGB nomination process is that Secretary Pompeo’s dereliction of duty was of a piece with the arrogance and contempt for the rule of law that he frequently showed to committees of Congress, the media and others. Secretary Pompeo’s passive-aggressive evisceration of the FSGB deserves to be recorded and remembered.”
Lawrence C. Mandel, the Chairperson of the Foreign Service Grievance Board issued the Annual Report for 2020 on March 1, 2021. The report notes that staffing was complicated by delay in the re- appointment of the Board’s Senior Advisor and two annuitant members, and the delay in appointment of five new Board Members, resulting in vacancies of nearly half of their members over the final three months of the year. Members of the Board are appointed for terms of two years by the Secretary of State.
The Annual Report says that despite these staffing challenges, “the Board closed 66 cases – almost as many cases as in 2019 (69). The average time to issue decisions was 66.9 days after closure of the Record of Proceedings (ROP).”
Whoa, whoa, wait, “the average time to issue decisions was 66.9 days after closure of the Record of Proceedings (ROP)?”  That got our attention. Based on the previous annual reports, the disposition of a case was measured from the time of filing to Board decision (or withdrawal/dismissal); not from when decisions are issued after closure of the ROPs.
In 2019, the disposition of cases, as we normally understood it, took 57 weeks, which would have been 399 days. In 2020, the average time is 66.9 days which is just 9.5 weeks. See below:
2020: Average time for disposition of a case, from closure of Record of Proceedings to Board decision was 67 days 
2019: Average time for disposition of a case, from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal, or dismissal, was 57 weeks. A number of older cases were closed this year, including some that had to await decisions in other fora. Additionally, fewer cases were settled and withdrawn this year, which increased the average time for disposition.
2018: Average time for disposition of a case, from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal, or dismissal was 41 weeks. Excluding three cases that were significantly delayed by extraordinary circumstances, the average time for disposition was 38 weeks.
2017: Average Time for disposition of a case, from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal, or dismissal was 41 weeks.
2016: Average Time for disposition of a case, from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal, or dismissal was 39 weeks.
So we asked the FSGB about this new way of describing the average time of disposition of FSGB cases.  The new way of describing duration of cases is not from time of filing, but rather from when a decision is issued after closure of the ROPs.
We also wanted to know what impact the 3 month delay in appointing/reappointing eight seats to the Board affected the processing of their cases.
We received a brief response that says in part, “We allow the FSGB Annual Report, as submitted to Congress, to speak for itself.”
Help alert! That is, we need help to understand stuff. We still can’t understand the way they calculate the disposition of a case. Counting from closure of ROPs to Board decision does not tell us the actual duration of cases, does it?
Good news though; at least they do not have an email chewing doggo over there!

###

FSGB: A Tandem Couple Gets a Penalty, You Guess It — For Being Married

13 GoingOn 14: Help Keep the Blog Going For 2021 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27

One of the cases highlighted in the recently released FSGB Annual Report for 2020 is one relating to finances involving  an FS-06 Office Management Specialist (OMS)  married to a Diplomatic Security Special Agent. Two FS employees married to each other is called a tandem couple.
In FSGB Case No. 2019-024, the Board overturned the Department’s application of several Standard Operating Procedures to grievant and her tandem spouse that denied her per diem and related travel benefits during a four-month period of mandatory language training in Washington, D.C. between her first and second assigned posts overseas. The Board found that in addition to internal inconsistencies, the Standard Operating Procedures applied by the Department conflicted with applicable federal statutes and regulations that otherwise governed grievant’s right to receive travel and per diem benefits.
FSGB Case No. 2019-024 Summary

Grievant was an untenured Foreign Service officer of the Department of State (“Department,” “agency”) who was part of a tandem couple. Grievant was directed to her first assignment overseas, at the end of which, she planned to take Home and Annual Leave, followed by sixteen weeks of mandatory language training at the Foreign Service Institute (“FSI”) in Washington, D.C., in advance of an onward assignment. Grievant’s husband, also a Foreign Service officer, requested and was granted Leave Without Pay (“LWOP”) in order to accompany grievant on her first tour. The Department considers LWOP on paper to be an assignment to Washington, D.C. At the end of the LWOP period, grievant’s husband planned to return to Washington to serve in a bridge assignment and to attend work-related training, followed by the same sixteen weeks of mandatory language training and the same onward assignment.

At the end of grievant’s first tour, pursuant to a Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”), the agency assigned grievant’s husband to “long-term” training at FSI. Under federal statutes and agency regulations, an officer who is in long-term training is authorized to receive locality pay and a Home Service Transfer Allowance but not authorized to receive per diem or an allowance for meals and incidentals. An officer is entitled to per diem and related expenses if he or she is on temporary duty of six months or less.

Another agency SOP requires both members of a tandem couple to be in the same status. Therefore, the Department assigned grievant to “long-term” training at FSI to match her husband’s assignment. Grievant requested and was denied a temporary duty assignment for the duration of her training. She filed a grievance challenging the agency’s application of SOPs that denied her the right to receive federally authorized per diem and related benefits.

The Department denied the grievance, arguing that because grievant was not contending that any of the applied SOPs was contrary to law, regulation, or collective bargaining agreement, she was not legally allowed to challenge them. The Department argued further that the federal benefits statutes and regulations upon which grievant relied did not apply to her because of the operation of the agency SOPs that required tandem couples to be in the same assignment status. The Department maintained that grievant did not establish that any of the SOPs were misapplied.

The Board reviewed the primacy of the federal legislation and regulations versus the agency SOPs and concluded that the federal statutes and regulation were controlling. The Board concluded that under the applicable statutes and regulation, grievant was entitled to per diem and related benefits, in the absence of application of the SOPs. The Board further found that the SOPs were internally inconsistent and conflicted with federal law and, therefore, grievant’s challenge to them was grievable. The Board concluded that grievant proved by preponderant evidence that the SOPs that were applied in this instance improperly prevented her from receiving per diem and other benefits to which she was entitled. The grievance was therefore sustained and the Department was ordered to reimburse grievant for the benefits she should have received under federal law.
[…]
Grievant points out that she and her husband did not have a local residence in the Washington DC area, therefore, they were obligated to spend money on housing, meals and incidentals. As proof that the SOPs were erroneously applied to her family, grievant cites the fact that the Department spent more money assigning her to Washington, D.C. than if she had been detailed to FSI in a TDY capacity. She states that the Department delivered to her rental property in Washington, D.C. her household effects (“HHE”), her privately owned vehicle (“POV”), and items that had been in storage; unpacked their belongings; and then repacked them less than six months later. Had the Department allowed her to receive per diem while on short-term training, her husband would not have received HSTA and they would not have received the HHE, POV transportation, or storage shipment.

The Board concluded that grievant, a member of a tandem couple, proved by preponderant evidence that the Department of State improperly denied her per diem and related benefits when it applied several Standard Operating Procedures that were at times internally inconsistent and that conflicted with applicable federal statutes and regulations that otherwise governed grievant’s right to receive travel benefits during a period of sixteen weeks of language training between two overseas.
Grievant argued that the Department’s SOP A-11a discriminates against tandem couples by treating them as a single entity, rather than two separate employees, each with their own respective, individual entitlements. She argues that there is no law or existing regulation that mandates that both members of a tandem couple remain in the same assignment status.
Grievant explained the practical difficulties of the policy application when she wrote to HR/CDA:

Since HR/CDA does review on a case-by-case basis and exceptions have been granted in the past, we do kindly ask guidance on how to pursue having [the denial of our request for per diem] reviewed. …. [W]e have been told we may have to be assigned as a PCS [Permanent Change of Station] vs TDY. … The arbitrary interpretation of an SOP, rather than a ruling that is backed by the FAM, is going to create undue hardship on our family and unnecessary expenses for the State Department by having to receive all of our HHE, storage, POV, etc, only to have it packed back up again within 4 months. Shipping our HHE from to DC where it will be unpacked then repacked, then shipped again to is going to cost significantly more than having it held in temp storage in ELSO [European Logistical Support Office] then sent directly. I understand that we have the option to pay to keep our belongings in storage, but that forces us into a furnished apartment for 4 months. I contacted Oakwood, and a 2 bedroom apartment will cost over $23,000 for this time frame, which is just absurd. Even with DC locality and HSTA that is an extreme amount of money that I have to pay to attend required training.

Note that a hypothetical FS-06/1 employee earns approximately $42K. A 4-month rental of a furnished apartment at $23K would cost more than half that employee’s annual salary.
FSGB’s take on SOPs vs. Federal Statute:

“… where there is conflict between a state law and a federal one, the Supreme Court has stated that the federal statue must take effect. It follows, then, a fortiori, that where there is conflict between a unilaterally established agency procedure and a federal law or regulation, the procedure must equally give way to the operation of a federal statute “where it is impossible … to comply with both.” Id. Here, the Department could not comply with the federal per diem statutes, as grievant requested, solely because of its application of legally inferior SOPs. We conclude that this was clear error.”

16 Weeks is a “Long Term Assignment”, Who Knew?

“We further find that by mandating that grievant was on an assignment to long-term training in Washington, D.C., when she was in fact in training for no more than sixteen weeks, she did not have a home in Washington, she had not previously been assigned there, and she was mandated to take language training for her onward assignment overseas, the Department violated its own SOPs. Specifically, the Department violated the provision in SOP A-11a that, “The Department’s policy is to ensure that no advantage or disadvantage accrues to any employee through the assignment process on the grounds of marital status.” (Emphasis added). Application of this SOP put grievant at a clear disadvantage because she was not permitted to receive the benefits of the federal statutory per diem and M&IE benefits, solely because she was part of a tandem couple. The record is clear that had grievant not been married to her husband, she would have been entitled to seek a TDY assignment to Washington for her short-term training.

A tandem married couple penalty:

“… the Board finds that the purpose of the SOPs applied in this instance was to prevent any one employee from receiving duplicate benefits, such as per diem and locality pay, or employee benefits and family member benefits. Nothing in the SOPs suggests that the purpose was to prevent one employee from receiving certain benefits on the basis solely that the employee was married to another employee who received different benefits. If this were the case, then the procedures would advantage unmarried, but cohabiting, couples over tandem married couples.

Here’s the nutty part. When the FSGB became aware that AFSA was requesting a change in the very policies at issue in this case, it asked the Department about the proposed revision. The Department told FSGB:

Please find attached a copy of the revised SOP A-11a, which was implemented by the Department in December 2019 and is currently being announced within the Department. … As the revisions to SOP A-11a were implemented after [grievant’s] assignment in this case, the revisions have no impact on the application of the prior version of SOP A-11a to [her]. In her appeal, [grievant] contends that SOP A-11a should not have been applied to her and that she should have been placed on TDY status, that SOP A-11a was contrary to law, and that SOP A-11a discriminated based on marital status. The revision of SOP A-11a does not validate any of the arguments raised in [grievant’s] appeal.

Holymoly macaroni! It does, good heavens, it does validate all! Exclamation points added !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Seriously, how does one learn to think with such mental and linguistic contortions?
We could almost imagine the FSGB Board members shaking their heads in disbelief when it said:  “The Department concedes that the policy has changed officially, precisely as grievant requested in her case. Essentially, the Department argues that the revised policy should not be applied retroactively and, therefore, grievant’s appeal should be denied.”
FSGB cases cannot be read online without downloading the files.  Files are available here.

 


 

 

Judicial Actions Involving Foreign Service Grievance Board Rulings

13 GoingOn 14: Help Keep the Blog Going For 2021 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27

The Foreign Service Grievance Board’s Annual Report for 2020 was released on March 1, 2021. It includes a summary of judicial actions involving the Board’s decisions:
Two decisions were issued in 2020 in court cases related to appeals from Board decisions:
FSGB Case No. 2017-014

The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2017-014 was denied tenure and scheduled for separation from the Foreign Service. Consequently, the Department ordered her to leave her overseas post and assigned her to a position in Washington, D.C. The grievant filed a grievance challenging the reassignment. The Department denied the grievance, and the Board affirmed the Department’s decision. The grievant appealed the Board’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix Division, which upheld the Board’s ruling in a decision issued September 24, 2018. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court decision, in an order issued January 8, 2020.

FSGB Case No. 2012-057

USAID OIG had recommended that the grievant in FSGB Case No. 2012-057 be separated for cause. The Board approved the agency’s decision in 2017, and she was removed for knowingly submitting false vouchers over a six-month period. The grievant appealed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and in a decision issued October 12, 2018, the judge upheld the Board’s decision on summary judgment, and affirmed the Board’s decision rejecting grievant’s whistleblower retaliation claim. The grievant appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which in an unpublished judgment on July 24, 2020 affirmed the District Court’s dismissal, validating the Board’s decision.

Pending court cases:
Consolidated cases 2013-031R and 2016-030

In a long-running case, an appeal by the State Department and USAID/OIG of the Board’s 2017 decision in consolidated cases 2013-031R and 2016-030 remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The case concerns the calculation of a Foreign Service Officer’s retirement annuity. As described in previous annual reports, the grievant in those cases contested the Department’s decision to calculate his retirement annuity based on the application of a pay cap on his special differential pay that had not been applied when his salary was paid. The Board initially upheld the agency’s decision in 2014. Grievant appealed, and in Civil Action No. 14-cv-1492, the District Court vacated the Board’s decision and remanded the case to the Board for further review. On remand, the Board issued a decision granting grievant the calculation and payment of his annuity that he sought. The Board denied the Department’s request for reconsideration of that decision. The Department and USAID/OIG jointly appealed the Board’s decision on remand to the District Court in Civil Action No. 18-cv-41, where it remains pending.

FSGB Case No. 2016-063

The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2016-063 challenged a one-day suspension based on three specifications of a charge of Improper Personal Conduct – two involving alleged inappropriate comments, and a third involving an alleged physical touching of another employee. The Department denied the grievance, and the Board affirmed in part, sustaining specifications of misconduct pertaining to one of the alleged comments and to the alleged touching, and holding that the suspension was reasonable in light of the two specifications that were sustained. The grievant appealed the decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The case is pending in District Court.

FSGB Case No. 2014-003

As discussed in previous annual reports, the grievant in FSGB Case No. 2014-003 filed an appeal of the Board’s decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia. She claimed that the Department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act when it failed to provide her with reasonable accommodation when she was separated for failing to meet the running requirement for newly-hired DS agents and by failing to assign her to a different, available position. On May 2, 2019, the Court referred the case to a magistrate for mediation and on May 7, 2019, the magistrate ordered appointment of counsel for the grievant. The parties began mediation at the end of 2020 and are still engaged in mediation efforts. No trial date has been set.

Pending with the Board
FSGB Case No. 2014-018

Also as described in previous reports, the appellant in FSGB Case No. 2014-018 had requested a waiver of collection of a substantial overpayment of her deceased mother’s survivor’s annuity. The Department contended that she was not entitled to consideration of a waiver because the overpayment was made to her mother’s estate, and under Department regulations, estates are not entitled to waivers. The Board concurred and grievant appealed. In a decision issued March 23, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Board had erred in determining that the overpayments were made to the mother’s estate rather than to grievant as an individual. The court remanded the case to the Board for consideration of the merits of the waiver request. The Department moved the court for reconsideration. The court denied the Motion for Reconsideration in an order dated January 19, 2018, and again remanded the case to the Board. The Board remanded the case to the Department for a determination in the first instance as to whether the appellant’s request for a waiver should be granted. On August 6, 2019, the Department’s Associate Comptroller denied the waiver request and the parties entered into settlement discussions, requesting a stay in the proceedings in the interim. The stay has since expired and the appellant’s appeal to the Board is now pending.

 


 

Hill v. Pompeo: An African-American DS Agent, Offensive Baboon Gear, and a Removal From Leadership Position

This is a Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lawsuit involving an African-American Special Agent in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security who joined the State Department in 2002. In September 2013, he joined State’s Office of Mobile Security Deployments (MSD). Excerpt below from the May 31, 2020 Memorandum of Opinion by Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:
Summary:
Viewing the complaint in the light most favorable to Hill, it alleges facts to support all three elements of this type of race discrimination claim. First, it alleges that “Hill and Whitaker were the only African American Team 2 members and that the Caucasian Team members had been complaining about them, admitting they did not respect them, and requesting transfers to get away from them since the month after Hill took over as Team Leader.” Compl. ¶ 118. The complaint enumerates multiple instances where the Caucasian team members complained about Hill, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 23, 24, 31, 39, 42, and sought his removal from his leadership position, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 45, 46, 49. And the ongoing dispute over the Caucasian team members’ use of the baboon logo and their joking references behind Hill’s back to the baboon logo as “racist,” id. ¶ 19, give rise to a reasonable inference that the Caucasian team members’ treatment of Hill was racially discriminatory. Second, “State admits it removed Hill based on the complaints from the Caucasian Team 2 members, making their complaints the proximate cause of the actions taken against Hill.” Id. ¶ 117. Third and finally, a fair inference can be drawn that Collura and Rowan, Hill’s supervisors, should have known that the Caucasian team members’ complaints were racially motivated. See id. ¶ 120. The complaint alleges: (1) a clear fissure between Hill and Whitaker and the Caucasian team members from the very start of Hill’s tenure, see id. ¶¶ 19–29; (2) that Hill complained to his supervisors about team members defying his order not to use the racially offensive baboon logo, see id. ¶ 47; and (3) that several of the Caucasian team members’ complaints about Hill had a questionable basis, see, e.g., id. ¶ 37, 43; yet, (4) “[m]anagement acted on the Team’s accusations against Hill without investigating the facts,” id. ¶ 120. Accepting all of these allegations as true, Collura and Rowan acted negligently by not investigating the Caucasian team members’ complaints before removing Hill from his leadership role.3 And because Collura and Rowan acted negligently with respect to the information the Caucasian team members provided, the racial bias of the team members is imputed to them. See Vasquez, Inc., 835 F.3d at 276. Accordingly, the Court will deny the Secretary’s motion to dismiss the race discrimination claim based on Hill’s removal from his leadership position. 4
4 In contesting this conclusion, the Secretary places heavy reliance on Tallbear v. Perry, 318 F. Supp. 3d 255 (D.D.C. 2018). In that case, the Court dismissed a Title VII race discrimination claim by a plaintiff who alleged that her co-workers had continued to use the word “Redskins” in spite of her objection to the term. Id. at 260–61. But Tallbear’s co-workers used the term in the context of discussing the Washington Redskins, a local professional football team, and there was no indication that they used the word as a racial slur or directed it at Tallbear herself. Id. at 261. Here, in stark contrast, Hill has alleged that his team members explicitly referred to the baboon logo as “racist” and ordered hundreds of dollars’ worth of baboon-branded gear behind his back after he, the team leader, explained why the logo was offensive and ordered the team to stop using it. Compl. ¶ 19. Moreover, and more importantly, Hill’s co-workers engaged in extensive and targeted efforts to remove him from his supervisory role, see id. ¶¶ 23, 24, 31, 39, 42, 45, 46, 49, and those efforts ultimately succeeded, id. ¶ 56.
Background excerpted from court record:

The Office consists of several teams of agents who deploy worldwide to provide specialized training to overseas personnel, as well as security support for potential and actual crises. Id. ¶ 10. At all times relevant to this case, Hill’s first-level supervisor was Justin Rowan, and his second-level supervisor was Nicholas Collura, Deputy Director of the Office. Id. ¶ 11. Both Rowan and Collura are Caucasian. Id.

In March 2014, Hill was assigned to Team 2 of the Office as its Team Leader. Id. ¶ 12. Another Special Agent, Steven Whitaker, was assigned to Team 2 at that same time. Id. ¶ 15. Both Hill and Whitaker are African American. Id. When Hill and Whitaker joined Team 2, the team consisted of four members, all of whom were Caucasian. Id. ¶ 14. The four Caucasian team members described themselves as close friends. Id.

When Hill and Whitaker joined Team 2, each of them found a printed image of a baboon—the team’s unofficial logo—at their new desks. Id. ¶ 16. Both Hill and Whitaker were offended by the logo. Id. When Hill officially took over as Team Leader in May 2014, Hill held a team meeting. Id. ¶ 18. At this meeting, Hill explained that he found the baboon logo offensive because of the history of racially derogatory references to apes. Id. Hill instructed the members of Team 2 to stop using the baboon as the team logo. Id.

The Caucasian members of Team 2 continued to use the baboon logo nevertheless. Id. ¶ 19. After Hill banned the logo, the Caucasian team members used their government email accounts to order hundreds of dollars’ worth of baboon coins, badges, stickers, and hats. Id. They jokingly referred to the baboon logo and the word baboon as “racist.” Id. They did not tell Hill or Whitaker that they were ordering the baboon gear. Id. Hill soon discovered that his team members were disregarding his order, though; one agent’s phone lock screen was the baboon image and another agent was handing out baboon coins to soldiers and local contacts. Id. ¶ 20

Continue reading

FSGB Case: When “there were no mitigating circumstances” considered despite conditions identified by MED

 

Via FSGB: 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.

[…]

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.
In addition, DS ROI #1 included a statement by the charged employee’s wife that she believed her husband suffered from mental impairment, requiring medical treatment. The record further contains evidence, according to the spouse, that MED had conducted a thorough mental health evaluation of the charged employee on four separate dates. Similarly, DS ROI #2 concluded that the charged employee had expressed that he heard voices and instructions from God, the Devil, and the Virgin Mary. (See Specifications 6-8, 25, 29, 38, 76 and 87).
[…]
In the instant case, while the agency has provided credible evidence that the charged employee’s conduct does not promote the efficiency of the Service, we find the decision falls short on consideration of so-called Douglas Factor #11 on the agency’s checklist that relates to personality problems as a mitigating factor. We also credit the charged employee’s 19 years of distinguished service before his display of conduct that gave rise to the LOR and the proposal to separate him from the Service.12
Moreover, the Board is unaware of a requirement that a DO must be privy to private medical information or be a medical professional to initiate an application for disability retirement. To the contrary, under 3 FAM 6164.2-3, HR/ER, in consultation with MED, can initiate an 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 the Board finds that the conditions in 1) and 2), supra, are apparent in this case.
Accordingly, the Board is of the view that the agency has not considered all mitigating factors before recommending separation for cause and has not exercised its authority to initiate, as an alternative to separation, the option of a disability retirement for the charged employee where grounds for such a retirement are apparent on the record. Pursuant to 3 FAM 6164.3(a), MED then would determine whether the charged employee is incapacitated for useful and efficient service, which is the standard for disability retirement.

@StateDept Did Not Comply With Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Requirements

 

Via FSGB: FSGB Case No. 2018-003
HELD – The Board granted grievant’s appeal, finding that the U.S. Department of State (Department) did not comply with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to provide grievant with a reasonable accommodation for her disability. The Board directed, among other things, that the parties engage in the interactive process required under the ADA to determine a reasonable accommodation.
SUMMARY – Due to a lengthy illness with cancer grievant, while serving on a limited noncareer appointment in the consular skill code, did not receive an Employee Evaluation Report (EER) from an overseas posting. A Commissioning and Tenure Board (CTB) deferred a decision on tenure until she was able to be appraised on her performance at an overseas posting. The Department assigned grievant to an overseas posting to enable her to receive such an EER. However, as a consequence of her chemotherapy, grievant experienced neuropathy in her hands, and she developed an allergy to nickel. Accordingly, she requested that she be permanently reassigned assigned to the economic skill code, which she said would require handling a smaller volume of materials. The Department denied that accommodation request but did provide her with special office equipment that it said would address her nickel allergy. Grievant continued to experience neuropathy during her overseas assignment and was medically curtailed from post without receiving an EER. As a result, her next CTB recommended that she not receive tenure, and the Department terminated her appointment. The Board held that the Department failed to meet the requirement under the ADA and Department regulations to engage with an employee with a qualifying disability, such as grievant, in an “interactive process” to determine a reasonable accommodation. Although grievant’s request to be permanently reassigned to another skill code would be a “last resort” under Department regulations, that did not relieve the Department of the duty to consider other options such as assigning grievant to positions in the consular skill code that did not involve processing large numbers of passport and visa applications. Further, the Department had an ongoing duty to find a reasonable accommodation when it became clear that the accommodation it did provide was not effective. Accordingly, the Board directed that when grievant was cleared medically to serve in an overseas posting, the parties engage in the interactive process to identify an effective accommodation for grievant’s disability.

 

FSGB 2020-008: Voluntarily Curtail Under Threat of Involuntary Curtailment or a Bad EER

 

Via FSGB 2020-008
Grievant is a tenured FP-02 Diplomatic Security Special Agent assigned as the Regional Security Officer (“RSO”) at U.S. Embassy [REDACTED] from June 2, 2017 until her involuntary curtailment on May 30, 2019. On July 3, 2019 she filed a complaint with the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (“S/OCR”) alleging sex, disability and age discrimination and reprisal for prior protected activity. In her S/OCR complaint dated July 3, 2019, she alleged 10 separate incidents of discrimination or reprisal by her rater, the Deputy Chief of Mission (“DCM”). She also alleged that at a May 8, 2019 meeting with the Ambassador (her reviewer), the rater and other senior officials, the Ambassador asked her to voluntarily curtail. When she refused, her rater informed her that her Employee Evaluation Report (“EER”) from April 16, 2018 to April 15, 2019 would contain a negative review statement. She ultimately declined to voluntarily curtail.
[…]
Grievant’s recitation of the facts – the underlying transactions – are contained in her agency filing as she has not yet filed her supplemental submission where she would have an opportunity to refine further her claims and remedies. In that filing, she provides extensive background chronicling allegations of sex and other forms of discrimination by her rater, the DCM. She also describes in detail four instances in which she invoked the displeasure of the Ambassador, her reviewer, for raising concerns that his actions or proposed actions constituted security risks. She then describes the removal of laudatory language in the draft rater’s statement and the circumstances surrounding her involuntary curtailment where she claims the DCM threatened to insert a negative reviewer’s statement into her previously drafted EER. She attributes both of these actions to retaliation for informing the DCM that she was initiating S/OCR proceedings.
From footnote, p.9:
“In stating I was going to seek EEO counsel and AFSA guidance related to discrimination I faced from the DCM, as I believe there were reprisal protections in place, I never envisioned I would face retaliation in the form of an involuntarily curtailment. It was only after I stated I was going to seek EEO counseling and AFSA guidance related to the DCM’s changes to the rater statement and then my refusal to voluntarily curtail under threat of involuntarily curtailment that a review statement which contained alleged performance issues materialized in retaliation for not acquiescing to the Front Office’s discrimination and reprisal.”
The FSGB Board issued the following order:
“… the Department’s Motion to Dismiss is denied in its entirety. Since the Department did not consider grievant’s claims on the merits, the Board remands the case to the Department for a decision on the merits. The Department should advise the Board of its decision not later than 45 days from the date of this order. Pending that decision, the Board retains jurisdiction of the case. Once the Department’s amended decision has been issued, grievant will have 60 days to amend her grievance appeal to the Board. In the meantime, the proceedings before the Board are stayed. The timeline for discovery will start anew when grievant files her amended appeal or advises the Board that no such amended appeal will be forthcoming.”
The FSGB files are not readable online; the files have to be downloaded first. Click here and locate FSGB 2020-008 from “Decision and Orders 2020” to read the full Motion to Dismiss order.

FSGB’s Noteworthy Cases Filed in 2019 and Pending Decision

The following cases are extracted from the Foreign Service Grievance Board’s 2019 Annual Report dated February 2020:
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-045 was assigned to a country where the Zika virus was widespread. When his wife became pregnant, she was medically evacuated from the post. When the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, State/MED contacted grievant’s wife and instructed her to forward the results of genetic testing done on the fetus, and she complied. Grievant claims that the Department gained access to these records under false pretenses and shared them in violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). He has asked that State/MED destroy the records. The Department has asserted that the Board lacks jurisdiction over the claims, and that grievant’s redress is through the Privacy Act.
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-036 is an employee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He was hired in a position that had a salary cap of FP-02. In 2012, grievant was assigned to a position designated FP1/SFS (Senior Foreign Service). Grievant claims that at the time it was agreed that a mechanism would be found to lift the cap so he could compete for promotion to the higher grade. In 2012, a personnel form SF-50 was issued showing a skill code change to effect the desired change in status. Subsequently, however, the Human Resources Office advised grievant that the conversion was done incorrectly and that he was not eligible for promotion until the issue was resolved. Grievant claims that despite repeated requests from him, nothing has been done.
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-020 claims that the Department retaliated against him when he questioned three grant activities involving his predecessor on the grounds of conflict of interest and violations of the ethics regulations. He claims that, as a consequence, his responsibilities were reduced and, ultimately, he was asked to curtail from post.
FSGB Case No. 2019-008 involves four claims, one of which is being resolved separately. In the first three claims, grievant challenges the Developmental Areas of three EERs and a low-ranking statement. In the fourth claim, grievant contends that his security clearance was wrongfully suspended and revoked. Although his clearance has subsequently been reinstated, he claims that harm to his career resulted.
In FSGB Case No. 2019-052, the grievant was assigned to a country in which the ambassador was a political appointee of the previous administration. Grievant believed she enjoyed good relations with him, despite a number of difficult issues the embassy encountered. However, when the ambassador chose to leave post early, he advised grievant that he was requesting her involuntary curtailment. On the advice of colleagues, she instead opted for a voluntary curtailment. She claims that although she was told by post management at the time that she would not be receiving an EER, she was later given one for a four-month period. That EER was the basis for a low ranking. Grievant claims that the EER includes a number of falsely prejudicial statements as well as procedural errors.
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-040 is a female officer who claims that an EER she received is the result of gender bias and retaliation on the part of her rater. The EER formed a basis for low ranking.
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-039 was the subject of an investigation, on the basis of which the Department originally recommended a 45-day suspension. While the charges were pending, the grievant was reached for promotion; however, the promotion was withheld pending the close of the disciplinary proceedings. Grievant was advised at the time that if the charges were resolved satisfactorily, his promotion would be made retroactive. At the close of the disciplinary procedures a number of years later, the penalty was reduced to a letter of admonishment. However, the Department maintains that the White House currently will not forward recommendations for retroactive promotions to the Senate for confirmation. It therefore forwarded a recommendation for promotion in 2019, not to be retroactive. Grievant claims back pay and benefits to the time he was reached for promotion.
The grievants in FSGB Case No. 2019-021 are new FSOs hired while already living in the Washington, DC area. They claim that they were improperly denied locality pay while assigned to long-term training prior to their first overseas assignments.
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2019-024 is part of a tandem couple. When she was assigned to her first overseas post, her husband was granted Leave Without Pay to accompany her. According to State regulations, his official assignment was therefore Washington, D.C. Grievant and her husband returned to Washington after that assignment, in transit to their next post, where she took home leave and annual leave and had four months of language training. Rather than considering grievant as being on TDY and thus entitled to receive per diem, the Department classified her as having the same status as her husband, a Washington-based assignment, in accordance with its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on tandem couples. Grievant contends this is a violation of Department regulations, which treat each member of the Service as individuals entitled to their own benefits. Approximately one year after the grievance was filed, the Department, with AFSA approval, modified the operative SOP to permit tandem employees in grievant’s circumstances to be on TDY and receive per diem; however, the Department maintains that the modification was not retroactive and, therefore, does not apply to grievant.

Grievant Claims @StateDept Failed to Follow Required Procedures, So What Happened Next?

 

Via FSGB 2019 Annual Report, February 2020:
The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2017-051, who was slated for separation, contested statements in an EER relied upon by Commissioning and Tenure Boards (CTBs) that deferred and ultimately denied him tenure. He also challenged the conclusions of the second CTB, as indicated in its counseling statement, on procedural grounds. The Board found one statement in the EER to be falsely prejudicial and ordered it redacted. It also found the second CTB had violated the precepts by failing to take into account that earlier performance weaknesses had been overcome. The Board ordered that the CTB decisions to defer and deny tenure be rescinded.
The grievant in this case raised a third issue that was advanced in several other cases. He claimed that the Department failed to follow required procedures by having CTBs composed of only five members, rather than the six required by the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) (including one non-State member). The Department argued that a five-member CTB was a long-running practice to which AFSA had agreed. The Board found that the five-member CTB did not comply with the applicable FAM requirements and provided another ground for relief. The Department has requested reconsideration of this aspect of the decision, which is pending. The Department has since amended the FAM to require only five members.
On April 16, 2019, the State Department updated the composition of the CTB to consist only of five members:
3 FAH-1 H-2246  THE COMMISSIONING AND TENURE BOARD
3 FAH-1 H-2246.1  Composition
(CT:POH-216;   04-16-2019)
(State Only)
(Applies to Foreign Service Only)
The Commissioning and Tenure Board (Board) will consist of five members of the Foreign Service of the Department of State, one from each of the five skill codes/occupational categories (management, consular, economic, political, and public diplomacy), of class FS-01 and above.  The most senior member will serve as the chairperson. Among the members, at least one will be a member of a minority group and one a woman.