Who Says A Federal Employee Can’t Be Fired?

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has upheld the removal of an IRS employee for improperly releasing taxpayer data.

You may have heard the argument that it is not possible to fire a federal employee. Here’s an example of how it can be done. All it takes is a lot of time, patience, money, knowledgeable, experienced attorneys and a strong case.

The IRS does not react well to unauthorized release of taxpayer data. And, when data is released on some 1300 taxpayers, someone in the agency is going to get upset and want to take action.

What happens when an employee of the Internal Revenue Service shoves taxpayer information out the agency’s door to a private sector accountant? Before you answer, what if she thought she should do it because the agency’s bureaucracy would take too long to respond to a request to release the information?

If you said “she gets fired,” you are a winner.

That happened in this case.

In fact, the accountant was getting so much information, he must have been concerned about his own future because he told the IRS all about it (the accountant was a former agency employee).

Eventually, the agency ended up paying more than $800,000 in penalties to taxpayers whose information had been improperly disclosed. This figure apparently did not count the salary cost of all the other IRS employees who had to work to straighten out the mess.

The second logical question: “What happens after the employee gets fired for disclosing so much information and costing the agency so much time, money and embarrassment?”

If you guessed “keep filing appeals,” you are right again.

After being removed, the case eventually went to an arbitrator. The arbitrator upheld the removal. The case then went to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

One argument was that the employee was not fired fast enough. The arbitrator found, and the court agreed, that the agency could not reasonably be expected to have acted faster because the evidence needed to fire her was held up in Grand Jury proceedings.

Another argument: It wasn’t her fault the information was released. She contended the IRS system failed because someone else should have told the accountant there was taxpayer information being sent to him other than the information he had specifically requested. The court rejected this argument because it had not been raised before the arbitrator. Also, noted the court, there are some cases where a link to the efficiency of the agency and employee’s conduct can be “presumed in cases where the employee’s misconduct is so egregious that it speaks for itself.”

The employee also argued that the penalty was too harsh and that she didn’t mean to harm anyone. The court concluded that while her intent may not have been to harm anyone, that didn’t mean she was a good fit for employment with the IRS.

The court affirmed her removal in Zingg v. Department of the Treasury, 04-3139 (November 2, 2004).

So the next time someone argues that it isn’t possible to fire a federal employee, you can say it is possible.

You can download the court’s decision from the link on the left hand side of the page.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47