When may Federal Employees be Lawfully Disciplined or Removed from Service?

Federal employees are usually subjected to rigorous background checks before being cleared for hire. Once employed by federal agencies, employees are often held to strict standards about their performance and conduct. If a federal employee engages in conduct or performs in a way that violates agency policies, standards, and/or expectations, they may be lawfully disciplined. Discipline can include a range of penalties, such as reprimand, suspension, demotion, or even termination or removal from federal service.

However, there have been many circumstances under which federal employees have been subjected to discipline, including removal, unlawfully. It is often possible to defend against unlawful disciplinary actions and removals. If you believe that you may have been wrongfully or unlawfully subjected to disciplinary action, connect with an attorney experienced in this area of law to learn more about your rights and options.

Lawful Disciplinary Action and Removal

Many federal employees are placed on probation for up to a year or more when first hired for their positions. Disciplinary actions, including removals, during this probationary period are often the most challenging to defend against successfully. Why? Because this period is a “trial” period and is considered an extension of the hiring process, most employees can be lawfully disciplined or terminated for virtually any reason. Most of the time, unless such action directly violates federal law—discussed in more detail below—disciplinary actions are lawful when initiated during a worker’s probationary period.

When federal employees transition from probationary to permanent status, they may only be formally disciplined for legitimate, lawful reasons. Often, they may only be formally disciplined if their conduct violates standards set by agency policies, practices, or articulated expectations, if they fail to perform the duties associated with their positions, or if they are no longer medically able to perform those duties. Note that these are broad categories, however, and exceptions exist to these rules. For example, if an employee becomes temporarily or permanently disabled, they may not be removed for inability to perform their duties if the employer can remedy the situation with a reasonable accommodation.

Even when an employee is being disciplined lawfully, the employer must follow certain protocols and procedures. If these protocols and procedures are not observed, the employee may be in a strong position to challenge the disciplinary action. For example, if an employee is not provided with the proper due process before being subjected to an adverse action, such as not receiving notice of the allegations, the materials relied upon by the federal agency in proposing the action, or an opportunity to respond before being disciplined, the employee may have strong grounds to appeal their adverse action to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The MSPB defines an adverse action as a suspension of greater than 14 days, demotion (reduction in grade or pay), or removal from federal service.

Unlawful Disciplinary Action and Removal Scenarios

Federal law protects workers against disciplinary actions grounded in certain motivations. For example, federal agencies are prohibited from discriminating against employees, e.g. disciplining employees, based on a protected basis, such as their age, religion, sex, national origin, race, or disability, or taking an action in retaliation for their prior protected activity, such as requesting an accommodation or initiating or participating in an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claim.

Additionally, whistleblowers are safeguarded from disciplinary action taken in retaliation for their protected activities. For example, whistleblowers may report instances of illegal activity, waste, fraud, or abuse within federal agencies, without incurring a risk of lawful removal or disciplinary action based on the information they report.

There are additional scenarios under which federal agencies sometimes unlawfully target an employee for formal discipline. Avoid making assumptions about whether your circumstances are actionable or not until you have spoken with an attorney. Often, it is possible to defend against unlawful disciplinary action, including removal or termination. You may be in a stronger or weaker position to defend yourself against your employer’s actions than you may believe, unless you obtain legal advice on your particular situation.

Federal Employee Disciplinary Action Lawyers

If you believe that a federal employer may have unjustly or unlawfully subjected you to disciplinary action, including removal from service, please contact Avery Dooley & Noone, LLP, today to learn about your rights and options under the law. In some circumstances a federal employer can formally discipline or remove an employee, these situations are often complicated with questionable actions or motives by management officials. Once our firm understands the circumstances under which you were formally disciplined or terminated, we can provide you with personalized guidance about your next steps. You’ll be empowered to make an informed decision about your options that best suits your needs. Contact Avery Dooley & Noone, LLP, by calling (617) 489-5300 or contacting us online.