The Federal Circuit recently reversed and remanded a decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board that centered around the timeliness of an appeal from a removal based on an employee’s conviction for making false statements on official travel vouchers. (Williams v. Merit Systems Protection Board, U.S.C.A.F.C. No. 05-3361 (non precedent), 5/25/06)
This former GS-13 HUD employee was found guilty by a jury of his peers on 14 counts of false statements in violation of 18 U.S.C. section 1001.
Mr. Williams had falsely stated on his official agency travel vouchers that he had paid for overnight lodging and had stayed in overnight lodging accommodations, which the jury apparently concluded was not true. The conviction led to a sentence of six months in federal prison and a fine of $3,668.08. In April 2001, HUD proposed to remove Williams based on the conviction.
Shortly thereafter, he began serving his sentence, leading to a certain amount of difficulty in serving the decision letter on him. When it was returned unclaimed from his home address, the agency tried to deliver it to him at a prison in Texas; however, this letter too was returned unopened.
At some point following his release from prison, Williams appealed his removal to the MSPB. At this point the case turned on the timeliness of his appeal since his notice of appeal was more than 2 years following the effective date of the removal. The Administrative Judge ordered him to show good cause for the lengthy delay. Williams argued he had not received adequate notice concerning his appeal rights. The AJ was not persuaded and dismissed his appeal as untimely. When Williams took his case to the full Board, he met with the same result. (Williams v. Merit Sys. Prot. Bd., No. DA0752040256-I-1 (July 28, 2005))
However, the court was not so quick to throw the appeal out. It pointed out that the HUD removal letter did not clearly state the time limit for filing an appeal, saying “it is undisputed” that the letter lacked this information. For this reason, the court found the letter was “materially flawed.” (Opinion, p. 5)
MSPB valiantly argued that even so, Mr. Williams, an attorney who should have understood the time limits, filed his appeal well more than 30 days after the date on which he acknowledged he had received the notice (57 days later, to be exact). Moreover, Mr. Williams apparently intentionally avoided receipt of the removal decision letter both when it was sent to his home address before he began his sentence, and when it was sent to the prison where he was serving his time. (p. 7)
However, the appeals court sided with Williams, reversed the Board and remanded the case: “We conclude that the Board, in ratifying the agency’s failure to discharge its statutory and regulatory notice obligations, acted contrary to law.” (p. 7)