Work Now, Grieve Later–Or Pay the Consequences

A federal employee with a record of disciplinary actions refused to obey an order from a supervisor. An administrative judge ordered reinstatement but the MSPB disagreed and upheld the removal. The case then went to federal court for a final decision.

A Postal Service employee who refused to obey an order from a superior who was not his immediate supervisor has learned the hard way that the rule is “comply, then grieve.” (Parbs v. United States Postal Service, C.A.F.C. No. 2008-3153 (nonprecedential), 12/3/08)

Parbs was a PS-8 Mail Processing Equipment Manager who was instructed by a Distributions Operations Supervisor to return to service the machine he was performing maintenance on. Parbs responded to the effect that she was “not his direct supervisor and therefore was in no position to tell him what to do….[and] told her to ‘talk to the hand.'”  (Opinion, p. 2)

Apparently not pleased with this incident on top of a few other disciplinary actions for insubordination and/or failure to follow orders, the immediate supervisor proposed Parbs’ removal. (p. 3)

When Parbs met with the Plant Manager to talk about the proposed removal, he admitted that he knew he was required to obey a supervisor’s order and file a grievance later if he disagreed with the order. He made the same admission later in his hearing before the Merit Systems Protection Board Administrative Judge after the agency fired him. (p. 3)

The Board was divided on Parbs’ appeal. The AJ concluded that the agency had failed to make its case and order the agency to reinstate him. Instead, the agency appealed to the full Board. By a 2-to-1 decision, the Board overturned the AJ’s decision and sustained Parbs’ removal. The majority found that Parbs was well aware of the obey-and-grieve rule as long as the supervisory order is not immoral or unsafe. Further, given Parbs’ two previous suspensions and written warnings for similar misconduct, the Board majority concluded removal was sustainable. (p. 3)

The dissenting Board member apparently believed that two things worked in favor of Parbs’ case—the fact that the order did not come from his direct supervisor, and the fact that Parbs finally did comply once his direct supervisor got involved and gave the order. (p. 3)

Unfortunately for Mr. Parbs, it only takes two Board members to sustain his removal. So he took his case to the federal appeals court.

The court was not impressed, citing Parbs’ inconsistent testimony before the agency and the Board. (p. 4) The court points to the “entirety of the record provided” in concluding there was substantial evidence to find that Parbs had “intentionally violated” the order and “knew of his obligation to obey the order” and grieve later. (p. 5)

Further, given Parbs’ history of discipline for similar offenses, the court refused to disturb the removal penalty. (p. 6)

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.