No justice for panicked fed

A case decided in December by the U.S. Court of Appeals makes a compelling argument for thinking carefully before you agree to give up your government job. The case involved a former communications specialist in a print shop that was operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Facilities Services Organization in Chattanooga. This employee accepted a package of special incentives to retire when the agency was undergoing a reduction in force (RIF) in 1993. Apparently this TVA employee was deeply concerned about his future. Early on July 15 the deadline for applying for the special retirement incentives he experienced a panic attack and was taken to a hospital in Chattanooga. A physician there noted in his report that the employee was "concerned about job issues and deadlines."

Time to Take it Easy

"I have informed him that I do not feel that he is presently competent to make any major decisions " the doctor wrote.

The TVA subsequently granted the employee more time to decide whether he wanted to take voluntary retirement. The agency also determined that he was fit to return to work based on the results of a clinical review performed by a TVA Medical Services psychologist the day before the employee was hospitalized. The decision was based in part on letters from the psychologist that stated the employee had "shown no signs of a thought disorder or of a loss of impulse control over the last year or so." The decision also took into account a letter from the employee's psychiatrist who asserted that he was fit for work.

There is a significant difference between being fit for work and being in a frame of mind to make a major career decision. And as if to demonstrate that he indeed was not competent (on July 15) to make such a momentous decision the TVA employee decided not to heed his doctor's advice and rejected the extension offered by the agency. Instead he contacted a TVA human resources manager and told him that he was prepared to sign the RIF agreement. He signed the voluntary RIF application that evening entitling him to a bonus and medical and retirement benefits. The manager told him that he would destroy the application if the employee had second thoughts and contacted him the next day.

Second Thoughts Do Not Count

The employee did not contact the manager and left the TVA under the voluntary RIF program on Aug. 15 1993. But he did have misgivings about his decision months later and he asked the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) to nullify his retirement because he had not been in a proper state of mind to make such a decision. The board turned thumbs down on his request in effect saying "You're a big boy and have to live with your decisions."The employee then appealed the board's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals. He argued that the MSPB erred in finding that he was mentally competent when he signed the RIF agreement. He recounted to the court the story of his panic attack earlier that July day and pointed out that the doctor who saw him at the hospital filed a report attesting to his incompetence.

The TVA responded that the human resources manager testified that the employee negotiated the terms of the RIF rationally and intelligently. According to the TVA the employee did not tell the HR manager that he had reservations about his competence to execute the agreement nor did he appear to regret the decision he made. The TVA also pointed out that the employee had ample time to consider his decision and could have rescinded the agreement the next day.

While all this is no doubt true I question whether this TVA manager was qualified to judge the employee's state of mind.

In this observer's opinion the best indication of the employee's state of mind on the day of his retirement decision is the comment by the doctor who treated him for an anxiety attack on that same day. I also think most people suffering from a panic attack would not seek treatment at a hospital unless they felt they truly were losing control.

The MSPB which rarely sides with employees concluded that there was no "competent medical evidence" to corroborate the employee's allegation that he was mentally incompetent at the time of his decision to retire. The court agreed asserting that he had adequate time to consider his options which included remaining employed.

The court was silent on the issue of whether he was competent to make the decision. Its ruling said the record does not show "reversible error" in the board's conclusion that his decision was not involuntary. Apparently the court can reverse an MSPB decision only when there is a blatant disregard of the evidence submitted. Because this was a judgmental decision the court felt compelled to let it stand.

I do not think justice prevailed in this case and I am disappointed that the court ducked a difficult case.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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