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How hard is it for federal employees to prove wrongful termination?

On Behalf of | Apr 12, 2024 | Wrongful Termination

Some federal employees are political appointees, subject to the political whims of those who appointed them. However, most federal employees do not work at the political whims of others. They work for the United States public, and the law says that agencies must evaluate and treat these workers according to their merits.

As the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) notes, the government’s merit-based principles aim to create a competent and productive workforce that serves the public interest. This means rewarding workers who do well, but it also means offering agencies the means to correct poor performance. Agencies can, and should, discipline under-performing employees, and they may sometimes remove them.

But what happens when the merit-based decisions don’t seem to support an employee’s discipline or removal? Wrongful terminations are still, sadly, too frequently a part of the federal government experience.

When is a termination wrongful?

The answer is that a termination is wrongful when it violates the law or other regulations.

The OPM notes that agencies can take adverse actions, including removal, under 5 U.S.C. Chapter 75. They can also remove employees for poor performance under 5 U.S.C. Chapter 45. However, both these statutes establish clear standards that agencies must meet. If the agencies cannot meet these standards, they should not remove the employee.

Terminations made in violation of either of these statutes are wrongful. However, they may not be the only wrongful terminations. Agencies may wrongfully terminate employees when their actions:

  • Go against the terms of a contract
  • Are rooted in illegal discrimination
  • Punish employees who refuse to break the law or act against public policy

Accordingly, to prove their employers wrongfully terminated them, employees must prove the employers violated one or more rules or regulations.

The elements of proof

Of course, there’s a difference between knowing that someone was wrongfully terminated and being able to prove it. Federal agencies and other employers will typically provide cover excuses that claim the termination was proper. Employees need proof that can pierce these veils and reveal the underlying cause of the removal.

Solid documentation is often key to these cases, as is the assistance of an attorney with experience in federal employment law. Federal employers must follow a different set of laws than civilian employers, so it’s important to get counsel from a lawyer who understands the federal rules.

Some of the materials that you and your attorney might use to build your case may include:

  • A detailed timeline of the termination and events leading up to it
  • Your previous performance reviews
  • Emails and other communications from your manager and employer
  • Eye-witness accounts from your co-workers
  • Records of comparable situations involving other employees
  • Patterns of agency actions or behaviors
  • Legal arguments and decisions from similar cases

The documentation you want will change with the circumstances of your case and argument. However, the primary goal will remain largely unchanged; you want to tear apart your employer’s false argument and reveal the truth.

Proceed with confidence

Employees often struggle to find success with their wrongful termination cases. There are many ways they can stumble, and they can find the whole process daunting. Still, the clock starts ticking as soon as the employer proposes the removal, so there’s little time to waste.

As a federal employee, you have the right to challenge a dismissal. The process can be confusing, as can the standards for your case. The steps you take early in the process can set you up for future success or failure, so it is often wise to work with an experienced attorney from the outset. Before you reply to any proposed discipline, you should understand your options going forward. Make sure you understand how you can build your case and how that case might go. That way you can proceed with confidence.


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