Posted: 1:30 am EDT
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The Foreign Service Grievance Board recently released its 2014 annual report:
A primary goal of the Board continuing during this past year (and in prior years) has been to improve its timeliness in terms of issuing its orders and decisions. The Board is acutely aware of the short timeframes that impact the careers of Foreign Service employees, and especially the schedules of various agency-appointed boards that grant tenure, decide on promotions, rank (and “low rank”) employees, and make other career-defining personnel decisions. While the Board does not fully control the entire grievance appeal process, e.g., the period during which the parties engage in sometimes lengthy discovery or file time- consuming motions, it has put in place procedures to expedite where possible those actions it does control.
The three-member panels selected to decide grievance appeals continued to work effectively during the year, producing several orders and decisions with significant issues of first impression or complexity. Social media has had an impact on some of the Board’s grievance appeals, and is likely to expand as a growing presence in both professional and personal interactions among Foreign Service employees. The increased exposure of what may have been considered private communications in the past has produced challenging questions regarding standards for personal and professional conduct of Foreign Service personnel, including the issue of what is a reasonable expectation of privacy; similarly, rapid changes in technology, in particular the growth of digitally based communications and cyber tools such as cloud computing, have altered methods of information storage, access and security that undoubtedly affect Foreign Service operations. These developments, along with rapidly evolving social and demographic changes, both within the Foreign Service and the society at large, are likely to influence to some degree future grievance disputes. A major challenge for the Board is to maintain its level of institutional and technological awareness to keep pace with the dynamic environment in which future dispute resolution will be necessary.
See the stats here: Snapshot: Foreign Service Grievance Board Annual Report 2014 – Statistics
According to the 2014 report, the largest number of grievance appeals by office were those filed by employees of the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (31% of the total). The Board is now seeing cases on disability, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or other medical condition that affected the employee performance or conduct that resulted in a separation recommendation. The average time for disposition of a case, from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal, or dismissal, was 45 weeks. This is two weeks longer than the average time of disposition in 2013. The Board currently has 19 members, with 12 retired foreign affairs members and 7 legal professionals.
Below is an excerpt from the report:
Fifty-three new cases were filed with the Board in 2014, comparable to the number filed the previous year (54). Over the past six years, the number of new cases has ranged from a high of 74 to a low of 43. Of the 2014 cases, 47 cases were filed by employees of the Department of State (or survivors of State Department employees); five by employees of USAID; and one by AFSA. No cases were filed by employees of the other agencies under the Board’s jurisdiction.
Timeliness of disciplinary actions, as governed by agency regulations, also continued as an issue of concern to employees. In three new cases filed, the employees alleged that delays ranging from 14 to 36 months violated Department regulations and disadvantaged them. Two cases involving timeliness were decided by the Board this year. In the first case, the Board found that a three-year delay was prejudicial to the employee and dismissed the charges. In the second, a two-year delay was deemed not to be prejudicial, but the charges were dismissed as not proven.
Eight of the new cases filed involved a claim that a disability, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or other medical condition affected the employee performance or conduct that resulted in a separation recommendation. Four involved allegations of alcohol abuse. The largest number of grievance appeals by office were those filed by employees of the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (31% of the total).
A number of individually noteworthy cases were filed in 2014:
- A USAID case involved the starting salary of a new hire, whose documentation of his previous salary while self-employed was alleged to be fraudulent. The grievant was one of several USAID new hires who were issued bills of collection for overpayment of salary following an agency audit of the starting salaries of new hires. Regulations for establishing starting salaries primarily took into account standard salary histories, and did not address factors stemming from self-employment or lower salaries/stipends earned while an applicant was earning an advanced degree.
- The daughter of a State Department employee contested a bill of collection issued by the Department for $311,000 in overpayment of a survivor annuity and denial of a waiver for the overpayment. The grievant was unaware that she needed to notify the Department upon the death of her mother. Survivor annuity payments were deposited into a joint account for several years before the error was discovered.
- AFSA filed an implementation dispute challenging the Department’s decision to deny payment of Meritorious Service Increases (MSIs) to outstanding employees identified by the selection boards in 2013. AFSA maintained that its agreement to defer such payments during sequestration of the budget in 2013 did not extend to a discretionary decision by the Department to withhold such payments permanently after the funds were available.
- A former president of AFSA contested the propriety of an email sent out by senior Department staff criticizing her for an op-ed piece she had co- authored with two former ambassadors. The op-ed piece, published in the Washington Post, expressed the authors’ perception that State was inappropriately placing an increasing number of civil service and political appointees in the highest leadership positions. The grievant also challenged the failure of one of the authors of the email to recuse herself from service on the grievant’s promotion board that year.
- A retired Foreign Service Officer filed a grievance alleging that remedies granted to him pursuant to the first grievance ever filed, in 1972, under authorities preceding the establishment of the Foreign Service Grievance Board, had never been implemented. He is seeking monetary relief.
- A grievant who in 1998 claimed bias on the basis of sexual orientation and a procedural error, and who appealed the FSGB decisions to both the district court and court of appeals, filed a new grievance claiming that Time-In-Class (TIC) and Time-in-Service (TIS) extensions awarded in that case had never been properly implemented, resulting in his impending separation for expiration of his TIS.
The Board resolved 12 appeals from discipline imposed by the Department of State. There were no appeals from disciplinary decisions of other agencies. In discipline cases, the agency has the burden to prove that the charge is factually correct; has a nexus to employment; and that the penalty is appropriate. The appeals covered a range of issues: alcohol and/or weapons-related incidents (five cases); filing false claims for reimbursement; false statements given to explain an absence from work; failure to maintain control of a diplomatic pouch; interfering with an investigation; the appearance of prostitution (two cases); and a security violation. In eight of the cases the charged employee alleged that the penalty was too harsh. In five of the discipline cases the Board affirmed the Department’s decision; in two it found in favor of the charged employee; in one it partially affirmed and partially reversed; and four cases were settled before reaching a decision on the merits. Nine of the cases involved employees of the Office of Diplomatic Security.
In one discipline case and a handful of others, the employees claimed that the incidents were related to the stress of service at hardship posts. As more employees are assigned to posts in countries where violence is endemic, the Board will be sensitive to similar conditions in appeals arising from this issue.
Eighteen appeals involving inaccuracies, omissions, prejudicial statements, or prejudicial errors in employees’ Official Performance Files that could affect their promotion and/or tenuring competitiveness were decided by the Board. The Board affirmed the agency decision in ten of the cases; reversed in two; and partially affirmed, partially reversed in three cases. Two appeals were settled, and one was withdrawn.
Two of the appeals contested IERs issued by the Office of the Inspector General, one involving an ambassador and the second a public affairs officer. In the first, the Board found that the right to counseling applied equally to ambassadors as to other employees. Although the bar may be higher in what an ambassador is expected to know, the Board found that in this particular case the ambassador had no reason to know of the deficiencies identified in the IER, and, therefore, lack of counseling by her supervisors prior to inclusion of the criticisms in the IER and her OPF was not harmless error. The Board also found that several comments in the IER about another, identifiable employee should not have been included in the ambassador’s OPF. The Board ordered that the IER be removed from the ambassador’s OPF. The second case was settled and withdrawn prior to a decision on the merits.
In general, the Board does not have jurisdiction over assignment actions. However, the Board may hear appeals in which the employee alleges a procedural violation of the assignment process. Two such cases were resolved last year. The first case stemmed from the 2012 violence in Benghazi. The employee alleged that he was removed from his position based on ill-founded conclusions by the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, and that he had been made a scapegoat as part of a politically motivated damage control effort. Prior to the conclusion of the appeal process, the grievant retired from the Department. The Board found that most of the remedies he had requested were no longer viable post-retirement, and it therefore drew no conclusions based on the merits. In the second case, the Board also found that the requested remedy, a change in eligibility requirements for long- term training, was outside its authority and dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.
Eight appeals involving financial claims were resolved by the Board last year, each presenting different, complex issues:
- In an appeal challenging denial of a medical evacuation allowance, the Department followed a long-established Standard Operating Procedure in denying medical evacuation for a high-risk pregnancy prior to the 24th week of gestation. The employee was directed to seek instead the lower separate maintenance allowance, even though all medical personnel agreed that grievant’s spouse needed to return to the U.S. in the 10th week of pregnancy. The Board found that the Department’s practice was inconsistent with its own regulations and directed the Department to recalculate grievant’s per diem based on the medical evacuation rate.See High Risk Pregnancy Overseas: State/MED’s SOP Took Precedence Over the FAM? No Shit, Sherlock!
- Six Security Engineering Officers (SEOs) challenged the Department’s decision to limit hiring of their class to an FP-06 pay level, while hiring preceding classes with similar qualifications up to the FP-04 level. In addition to charging a violation of merit principles, the grievants claimed that there were no jobs available at the lower level, so they were unjustly required to work at a higher pay grade than they were being paid. The case was resolved with respect to four grievants when they withdrew their appeals. The appeal of the other two is pending.
- A career Civil Service employee was given a Limited Non-career Appointment in the Foreign Service, then granted a conversion to career Foreign Service. While in the U.S. working to satisfy the language requirement for a pending overseas FS assignment, grievant’s position was first designated FP-02, then retroactively downgraded to GS-12. The Department required her to reimburse the overpayment in salary resulting from the initial designation. The Board found that, while the Department’s regulations regarding conversions are unclear, in this case the downgrade without notice was an improper application of the relevant laws and regulation, and the employee was entitled to recover the funds repaid to the Department.
- The Department denied a cash award to an employee for a suggestion he had made and that it had implemented. The primary basis for denial was that grievant had received a cash award for a similar reason, and thus was not permitted a second cash award for the suggestion. Grievant also claimed that the official who denied the award was the deciding official in a disciplinary action pending against him, and thus should have recused himself. The Board found that the two awards were for different purposes and thus not prohibited by the regulation, and agreed that the deciding official should have recused himself from the award decision. It remanded the case to the Department to reconsider its original decision.
- A Diplomatic Security agent was required to surrender his law enforcement credentials and was denied law enforcement availability pay (LEAP) when the Secret Service investigated him regarding a collectible coin that he had purchased and sold, which turned out to be counterfeit. The investigation remained pending for a number of years, with no charges brought against the agent. During that time, his LEAP pay remained in abeyance. The Board found that although the Department did not have regulations addressing these circumstances, it had implemented a clear and consistent policy and did not act arbitrarily in denying grievant LEAP pay.
- A retired criminal investigator with the USAID Inspector General’s Office alleged that the State Department miscalculated his retirement annuity by applying a pay cap imposed by the USAID IG through a 2006 memorandum. The Board found that the Department’s reliance on the memorandum was proper, and denied grievant’s claim to a higher annuity. The grievant has appealed this decision to the D.C. district court.
Judicial Actions Involving Board Rulings
One new case was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia last year. Gregory Picur, retired from USAID’s Office of Inspector General, appealed the Board’s decision to uphold the Department’s calculation of his retirement annuity. A decision is pending.
Three other cases are pending decisions in federal court:
- The five plaintiffs in Richard Lubow, et al. v. United States Department of State, et al. (923 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.D.C. 2013)), retired and active duty Diplomatic Security agents who served in Iraq in 2004, appealed a district court decision granting summary judgment to the Department. The plaintiffs had grieved the Department’s application of a cap on their premium pay during their time in Iraq and its decision not to grant them a waiver of repayment of the amounts they had been paid in excess of that cap. The Board had affirmed the Department’s decision applying the cap and denying the waiver.
(note: a ruling was issued on this case this past week, we will post separately)
- In November 2012, Jeremy Yamin petitioned the D.C. district court to review a FSGB order denying in part his request for attorney fees incurred in a grievance appeal.
- In January 2011, Joan Wadelton appealed a Board decision ordering six new reconstituted selection boards be convened as the remedy for three prior grievances. Ms. Wadelton’s appeal contests the Board’s decision to order a new round of reconstituted boards, rather than direct a promotion, as she had requested. Ms. Wadelton is separately engaged in litigation against the Department concerning compliance with three related FOIA requests she filed seeking certain Department records about her. The Department has completed its production of documents pursuant to those requests and is currently engaged in briefing related to motions for summary judgment. (see Former FSO Joan Wadelton With Truthout Goes to Court Over FOIA Case)
One of the “other” cases adjudicated by the Board.
[T]he employee had been assigned to a senior job in an international organization for five years by virtue of separation/transfer with reemployment rights. Under that particular arrangement, his OPF was not reviewed for promotion for those years, and he was reemployed by State at the same grade as when he had left. Grievant contested the legality of that policy. The Board found that, although there was confusion within State about the ramifications of different transfer/secondment actions and grievant had not always been given consistent information, the precepts were clear and no remedy was warranted. Grievant has two related cases pending. (see Secondments to international organizations and promotions? Here comes the boo!).
The full report is available here.