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Illegal Firing in the Federal Workplace: Uncle Sam Can Be a Bad Boss

The stereotype of a federal government job is far from the truth. So you’re set for life – a secure position with solid benefits and pay, and maybe not too much effort. Unfortunately, the nightmare of being unjustly discharged from a federal position comes true for too many people.

Any federal employee that feels his or her job termination was undeserved, and maybe unlawful, should immediately contact an employment attorney with particular experience with the federal job sector. Legal remedies for wrongfully terminated federal employees are in place, but complex and difficult to navigate on your own.

Federal worker claims of questionable job terminations are likely to end up eventually before one of two specialized federal agencies – the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the particular circumstances. Other agencies may also offer remedies for employees of particular government branches. Additionally, many types of wrongful termination in the federal sector may be compensable through lawsuits in the federal courts, either directly or on appeal from federal agency actions.

If a federal employee suspects he or she was fired in an act of illegal discrimination, the usual first step is to lodge a complaint with the employer agency, which has its own internal procedures for investigating and remedying discriminatory discharge. (Protected characteristics include race, color, national origin, age over 39, religion, disability, genetic information, gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, political affiliation, parental and marital status, and legal conduct that does not hurt job performance.)

Options before the employing agency in a discriminatory discharge matter will probably include counseling, mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods, or an administrative hearing. The decision of the agency on the discrimination claim will probably be appealable to the EEOC and federal court.

Certain situations may allow the discrimination claim to go to federal court at other stages of the agency process.

Other potentially illegal federal job terminations include whistleblower retaliation situations where employees feel they were let go as reprisal for having reported their suspicions of illegal activity by other government employees; and cases where firings were prohibited personnel practices, known as PPPs, in violation of the federal merit system.

The merit system is a set of laws that set standards by which the federal government must abide when taking adverse or disciplinary actions against its employees. For example, a federal manager or supervisor cannot fire, or cause another to fire, an employee for exercising political rights, in order to hire a relative instead, by improperly influencing others about the employee, for refusing to break the law, and for other similar reasons. Basically, the merit system demands openness and fairness in the federal employment relationship.

Employees can bring whistleblower retaliation and PPP claims to the attention of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, known as the OSC, whose job it is to investigate and try to bring offending employer agencies into compliance. If unsuccessful, the OSC can bring the claim to the MSPB for adjudication, where the OSC functions as the prosecutor and the Board as the judge. Other avenues exist for employees in these situations to go directly to the MSPB.

Final MSPB decisions are normally appealable to federal court. In so-called mixed cases, where the unjust termination was a PPP because it constituted illegal discrimination, review is available by the EEOC or a lawsuit may be filed in federal court.

This article only skims the surface of the legal remedies for unfair discharge from federal employment, related deadlines and other procedural requirements. It cannot be overemphasized how crucial the assistance of an employment lawyer with federal employment case experience can be.