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.

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FSGB: “Automatism” Defense Against Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct Charge Fails

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Via FSGB Case No. 2020031 February 19, 2021
HeldThe Department proved by preponderant evidence that the charged employee committed notoriously disgraceful conduct by engaging in non consensual sexual contact with a colleague in a public Embassy space; the misconduct was not caused by a neurological condition (automatism); there was a nexus between the charged misconduct and the efficiency of the Service; and that the penalty of separation is reasonable.Case
SummaryThe Department charged an unaccompanied married employee with notoriously disgraceful conduct after he went to a pool party at an overseas post, had a few alcoholic drinks, and, after some physical contact with a married colleague who was intoxicated, touched her near her genital area without her consent. The incident was videotaped by security cameras and was observed by employees who were at the pool. The Department argued that intent is not an element of the charged misconduct but should be considered as a mitigating or aggravating factor when the penalty is determined. The agency presented the testimony of an expert witness who opined that the charged employee did not suffer from an automatism at the time of the misconduct. The agency contended that the undisputed evidence proves notoriously disgraceful conduct. The Department argued that separation was the only appropriate penalty for the egregious misconduct, given a fair consideration of the mitigating and aggravating factors and a review of comparator cases.
The charged employee presented a report from an expert witness who opined that at the time of the misconduct, the employee was experiencing a neurological event, called an automatism,which prevented him from having any awareness of, or control over, his actions. The charged employee contended that he is not culpable for the charged misconduct because intent to commit the conduct is a necessary element of the charge.The employee also argued that the Deciding Official did not properly consider mitigating circumstances and the penalty was unreasonable after a review of comparator cases.
The Grievance Board considered the undisputed evidence of the incident that was recorded on the videotape and not contested by the charged employee. The Board further reviewed the testimony of the competing experts and concluded that the opinion of the charged employee’s expert witness was not sound because it was not consistent with the accounts of the witnesses, including the charged employee, and it did not derive from a persuasive differential diagnosis. The Board concluded that the charged employee’s expert witness speculated repeatedly on the possible causes for an automatism,which undermined the plausibility of his ultimate opinion. The Board further found that because intent was clearly established, the issue of whether intent is an element of the charge did not need to be decided. The Board concluded that there was a nexus between the misconduct and the efficiency of the Service because the incident was videotaped, witnessed by several employees, resulted in an almost immediate curtailment and a suspension of the charged employee’s security clearance. Lastly, the Board found that the penalty was within the zone of reasonableness after an appropriate review of mitigating factors and case comparators.
The Board finds that Department “has established by preponderant evidence that the charged employee committed the specified charge of notoriously disgraceful conduct, the misconduct was not the product of an automatism; there is a nexus between the misconduct and the efficiency of the Service; and the penalty of separation is reasonable.”
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Judicial Actions Involving Foreign Service Grievance Board Rulings

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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.

 


 

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.