Violence in the Workplace Leads to Removal–and Another Court Case

A DoD employee admitted she got into an altercation that led to a fight causing an employee who tried to break up the fight to be put on workers’ compensation. After being fired, she argued she was “incited” into the fight and took her case to court.

A Defense Logistics Agency employee fired for a physical altercation with coworkers was unable to convince the appeals court to overturn the agency’s action. (Simmons-Roberts v. Department of Defense, C.A.F.C. No. 2011-3056, (non-precedential) 9/19/2011)

According to the court’s opinion, Ms. Simmons-Roberts was a Transportation Loss and Damage Claims Examiner at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. She got into an “altercation” with a coworker that led to a “physical fight” and her use of “offensive language.” (Opinion, p. 2) A third employee tried to break up the fight and Simmons-Roberts “shoved and hit” the third employee, causing her to fall, be injured, and put on workers’ compensation. (p. 2)

As this apparently was her second offense of this nature, the agency proposed her removal. Simmons-Roberts took responsibility for her actions but in her reply to the agency she stood on her 25-year work record and argued she had been “incited” by the first coworker into the fight.

The agency decided on her removal. Simmons-Roberts appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board. One of her main arguments was that this was not a second offense on her part because the earlier disciplinary action should have been removed from her file and therefore not considered.

The Administrative Judge held that this was not harmful error on the part of the agency because the deciding official had testified that he did not actually consider any prior discipline when he made the decision to remove her. (p. 3) The full Board agreed. (p. 3)

Simmons-Roberts took her case to the appeals court, arguing the MSPB had erred in this holding.

The appeals court disagrees with her argument, stating there was “substantial evidence” to support the finding that the deciding official had not relied on a prior disciplinary action in making his decision to remove Simmons-Roberts. The court also brushed aside her other arguments and specifically finds there was no abuse of discretion in the case. “Removal was not unconscionably disproportionate to Petitioner’s offense.” (p. 5)

In short, Simmons-Roberts removal is upheld.

A physical altercation at work—especially one that leads to the injury of a coworker—is a serious misconduct situation. Most government agencies we know of have “zero tolerance” for violence at the workplace.


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.