FSGB: Selection Boards Cannot Rely Almost Exclusively on Discipline Letters For Low-Ranking

 

Via FSGB Case No. 2021-019 | September 28, 2021
Held – Grievant proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the 2020 Foreign Service Selection Board (“FSSB”) committed procedural error in low-ranking him.
Case Summary – Grievant argued that the 2020 FSSB effectively relied only on a discipline letter in his Official Performance Folder (“OPF”) when deciding to identify him for low-ranking, a violation of its Procedural Precepts. While the FSSB also referenced a Developmental Area (“DA”) from his 2018 Employee Evaluation Report (“EER”), grievant argued the FSSB misinterpreted the DA. Moreover, he maintained, the FSSB was required to substantiate the discipline letter and the DA with examples from his evaluations, which it did not do. Grievant argued that the FSSB cannot low-rank him for failing to demonstrate growth without citing examples from his evaluations for the last five years to substantiate its finding, which it failed to do. Grievant asked that the low ranking be rescinded and he be mid-ranked.
The Department of State (“Department”) noted that the discipline letter was correctly included in grievant’s OPF and therefore was appropriately available for review by the FSSB. The FSSB clearly stated in its low-ranking statement (“LRS”) that it had reviewed the past five years of grievant’s evaluations as required by its Procedural Precepts. The FSSB properly linked grievant’s conduct as discussed in the discipline letter to performance standards, skills, and competencies. The FSSB referred to both the discipline letter and the 2018 EER, meeting the standard for specific references established in the FSSB Procedural Precepts. The expectation of professional growth is implicit in the appraisal process and does not require a separate definition. Grievant also failed to place a rebuttal letter into his file although given the opportunity to do so.
The Foreign Service Grievance Board (the “Board”) found that the LRS relied inappropriately on the discipline letter, without the supporting examples from evaluations which are required by its Procedural Precepts. The LRS made a passing reference to the 2018 DA that came from the same rating period as the discipline letter and was not substantiated by examples from relevant EERs as required by the FSSB Procedural Precepts. The LRS inappropriately faulted grievant for failing to demonstrate growth in two specific areas without citing evidence from his OPF. Grievant’s decision not to submit a rebuttal to the discipline letter is irrelevant.
The Board granted the grievance and ordered the Department to rescind the low-ranking and amend grievant’s record to show mid-ranking.
Details:

REDACTED(“grievant”) is an FO-01 Economic Officer employed by the Department of State (the “Department” or the “Agency”) since 1998. He has served at numerous foreign and domestic posts, and by 2018 had earned three Meritorious Service Awards across his 20-year career.

On May 31, 2017, grievant was assigned as Deputy Chief of Mission (“DCM”) to the U.S.Embassy REDACTED (the “post” or the “country”). Upon his arrival grievant became the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim (“CDA”) of the U.S. Embassy at post, and served in that capacity until January 27, 2018 when a new ambassador arrived. During the time grievant was CDA, he appointed his Management Officer (“MO”) as his Acting Deputy Chief of Mission (“ADCM”) upon her arrival at post in August 2017.

Between September 2017 and January 27, 2018 grievant made a series of inappropriate comments and gestures directed at the MO and an office management specialist (“OMS”), persisting even after being advised he was making others uncomfortable. On April 5, 2019, the Department proposed discipline of a seven-day suspension without pay based upon a June 6, 2018 Sexual Harassment Inquiry received from the Office of Civil Rights (“S/OCR”). After receiving grievant’s written and oral submissions in response to the discipline proposal, the Department mitigated the discipline to a five-day suspension in a letter, dated April 6, 2020, which listed nine specifications of inappropriate comments. Consistent with regulation,1 this letter was placed in grievant’s OPF where it will remain until May 2022.
[…]
Grievant does not challenge the presence of the discipline letter in his OPF. However, he argues that the FSSB is barred by its Procedural Precepts from relying solely on a discipline letter in order to low rank him; that it is required to do more than just allude to reviewing the last five years of his evaluations and must instead cite specific examples from those evaluations linked to his alleged inadequacies. He further contends that the FSSB cannot low rank based on a perceived lack of growth in specific skills, absent examples drawn from his evaluations.

Grievant dismisses the Department’s argument that he could have placed a rebuttal letter in his OPF in response to the discipline letter but failed to do so. The right to submit a rebuttal, he insists, is irrelevant to the procedural error committed by the FSSB.
[…]
This Board finds that the Procedural Precepts are clear regarding the standards for taking the serious decision to low rank an employee for good reason. Affirmations cannot replace the specific examples required by the Procedural Precepts. A void in substantiating failure to perform cannot be compensated with specific examples related to positive performance.
[…]
The Board finds that the FSSB misinterpreted the DA. Grievant arrived at post in May 2017, and the OIG investigators came in October 2017. Any adverse findings by the OIG relating to the embassy’s internal management could not logically be attributed to any failing by grievant in those few months.
[…]
The Board acknowledges the gravity of grievant’s conduct and the importance of considering the discipline letter as part of the FSSB process. However, as we recently decided in FSGB Case No. 2021-002 (June 25, 2021) at 21:

The FSSB precepts also sought to protect employees from being sanctioned twice for the same misconduct by prohibiting sole reliance on discipline letters when the FSSB is making decisions about low-ranking.

By relying exclusively on the discipline letter without any substantiating examples from grievant’s evaluations for the past five years, the FSSB has committed procedural error, and has sought to penalize grievant twice for his conduct.

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FSGB Annual Report 2018: Judicial Actions Involving Board Rulings

 

The following is excerpted from the Foreign Service Grievance Board Annual Report 2018. This is a good time to remind folks that while names/posts and identifying details are typically redacted from the Record of Proceedings (ROPs) routinely posted in the publicly available website fsgb.gov, once the case is filed in federal court, the records are usually publicly accessible and are unredacted (unless the case is sealed).

As described in last year’s report, USAID OIG had recommended that the grievant in FSGB Case No. 2012-057 be separated for cause. After two hearings, the Board approved the agency’s decision. The grievant appealed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In a decision issued October 12, 2018, the court upheld the Board’s decision on cross-motions for summary judgment. The grievant has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, challenging the District Court’s and Board’s construction of section 7(b) of the IG Act, which protects the confidentiality of employee informants.

In FSGB Case No. 2014-018, the grievant 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; under Department regulations, estates are not entitled to waivers. The Board concurred and grievant appealed. In a decision issued January 19, 2018, the D.C. district court found that the regulation denying waivers to estates was valid, but that the FSGB 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 for the Department and the Board to decide the request for the waiver on its merits. The waiver request is currently pending with the Department.

The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2015-016 filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2017 against the Department and his former rater and reviewer requesting monetary damages related to the Board’s denial of his grievance. He had contested two EERs and a low ranking. The district court dismissed the complaint as untimely in a decision issued March 30, 2018. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed that decision on December 28, 2018.

The grievant in FSGB Case No. 2013-005 contended that he was deprived of certain benefits, such as promotion consideration, during a five-year assignment to an international organization. The Department found him ineligible for the benefits because his assignment to the organization was effected through a “separation and transfer” agreement, rather than a “detail.” The Board affirmed the Department’s decision and the United States District Court for the District of Colombia upheld that decision on appeal in a decision issued in 2016. The grievant had also appealed the Board’s decision in a second, related, case, FSGB Case No 2014-024, in which he had claimed certain benefits based upon his separation and transfer and subsequent reemployment with the Department. The Board dismissed his second grievance on the grounds of claims preclusion. In a decision issued March 14, 2018, the district court concluded that the Board’s decision was neither arbitrary and capricious nor contrary to law and dismissed his claims. The grievant appealed both decisions to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and that matter remains pending.

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 with the Department challenging her transfer on several bases. The Department denied the grievance, and the grievant appealed to the Board. The Board denied all of grievant’s claims. It further found that, since no statute or regulation had been violated, it lacked jurisdiction to overturn an assignment decision. The grievant appealed the decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix Division. In a decision issued September 24, 2018, the court affirmed the Board’s decision.

Decisions were issued this year in two other cases filed by the same grievant, stemming from the same sets of circumstances but not involving appeals of Department or Board grievances. The grievant filed a case under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims alleging gender-based discrimination in pay and benefits. She claimed that the Department discriminated against her by paying her less and providing her with fewer benefits than a similarly-situated male employee. The court initially dismissed the case, finding that it lacked jurisdiction because the same appeal was pending in another court at the time she filed. However, that decision was overturned by the circuit court and the case was remanded to the Court of Claims. The grievant also filed two identical complaints in the U.S. District Court for the District of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix Division, alleging discrimination and retaliation by the Department under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In both cases, the court dismissed all but one of the claims. The grievant also filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging nearly identical discrimination and retaliation by the Department under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has stayed its proceedings pending a decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of the Virgin Islands case.

An appeal of the Board’s 2017 decision by the State Department and USAID/OIG in another long-running case remains pending in the D.C. District Court following briefing of crossmotions for summary judgment in Civil Action No. 18-cv-41 (KBJ). As described in previous annual reports, the grievant in FSGB Case No. 2013-031 contested the 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. In 2014, the Board initially upheld the agency’s decision. On grievant’s appeal, the district court in Civil Action No. 14-cv-1492 (KBJ) vacated the Board’s decision and remanded the case to the Board for further review. On remand, the Board in FSGB Case No. 2013-031R and No. 2016-030 issued a decision granting the grievant 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 (KBJ).

The 2015 Annual Report reported that the grievant filed an appeal of the Board’s decision in FSGB Case No. 2014-003 in Federal District Court, District of Colombia, claiming that the Department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act when it separated her. That appeal is still pending.

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