Supreme Court Sides with Merit Board

November 15, 2001 ( - The Supreme Court ruled that the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) may decide whether an employee's termination was fair - even if challenges to prior disciplinary actions against the employee are still pending.

In a case involving a US Postal Service letter carrier fired in November 1997, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the review that an employee receives from the MSPB, the panel to which federal employees can appeal disciplinary actions, is fair – if the board’s mechanism for reviewing prior disciplinary actions is itself adequate.

Going Postal

Maria Gregory had been disciplined for insubordination three times in 1997. She was given a written warning, then suspended for seven days and again for 14 days for delaying the mail. She filed a grievance after each incident.

Towards the close of 1997 she claimed 3.5 hours of overtime, which she said she spent completing her route. Her supervisor believed that she had overestimated the time worked by more than an hour – Gregory was fired.

Gregory challenged her termination, saying that the MSPB should not consider the case while her previous grievance charges are still pending.

Prior Actions

However, Justice O’Connor sided with the US Postal Service, saying that the MSPB has broad discretion to review past disciplinary actions and there was nothing arbitrary about such a review.

If a dismissal is based on a series of disciplinary actions, the board’s authority to review the firing may include the prior actions to determine whether the penalty is reasonable, she said.

According to O’Connor, a US appeals court was wrong in ruling that the board cannot consider prior disciplinary actions that are being challenged since it would cause either undue delay or preclude agencies from relying on what could be an “important factor” in determining the reasonableness of the penalty.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the appeals court.