U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials spent a year fighting the termination appeal of a Mississippi food inspector who allegedly brandished a gun in front of her boss and pretended to shoot him with her fingers, then blamed her ousting on racism.
Jeffrey Morris, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) administrative judge for MSPB’s Atlanta Regional Office, upheld in October the USDA’s Oct. 29, 2015, firing of former food inspector Brenda Hicks. But Morris did so only after initially overturning her firing, then having to re-hear it in response to USDA’s appeal, according to MSPB case documents.
The MSPB was established under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to adjudicate employee appeals of individual disciplinary cases.
The Hicks case highlights why the odds of a career federal civil service employee being fired are one-in-500 in any given year, according to a previous review by The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group. The federal firing rate has dropped to its lowest point in five years. (RELATED: Here’s Why It’s All But Impossible To Fire A Fed)
Hicks led her boss — supervisory public health veterinarian Roland Ledbetter — to her car parked outside a private slaughterhouse April 29, 2014, and showed off “what appeared to be a gun,” hours after he wrote her up for taking unapproved absences, according to MSPB case documents.
Ledbetter later told MSPB when he saw the gun, he said, “if you’re going to shoot me, shoot me between the eyes.” Hicks in her MSPB testimony claimed she pulled out a “small bottle of whiskey or vodka,” not a gun.
A few days later on May 5, 2014, Hicks “came to the door of an agency office, asked for (Ledbetter), and then pointed her finger at him and made a noise as if she were firing a gun,” according to the documents.
The USDA issued a notice of proposed removal to Hicks Aug. 10, 2015, citing Hicks’ failure to complete training as a violation of the terms of her employment, and conduct “prejudicial to the best interests of the service” as justifications for firing her.
Hicks refused to sign her final removal letter issued Oct. 29, 2015, and filed her appeal, alleging due process violations and discrimination based on race.
Morris initially found that USDA violated Hicks due process rights “by not informing her that her alleged ‘threats’ would be considered in rendering a final decision.” The department was told to reinstate Hicks.
The department appealed that decision to the MSPB in Washington, D.C., which held in September 2016 that Morris’ claim that USDA denied Hicks due process was incorrect. The board said USDA should have charged Hicks with making “threats,” not a “conduct prejudicial” charge, reversing the administrative judge’s initial decision and sending the case back to him for review under legal standards applying to a “threat.”
Morris then upheld the agency’s decision under those standards Oct. 20, saying, “even if couched in dark humor, the message was that Ledbetter should exercise greater leniency in dealing with her attendance issues.”
“I agree with the deciding official’s penalty analysis, particularly regarding the nature and severity of the offense given the current prevalence of gun-related workplace violence in our society,” Morris wrote in his Oct. 20 decision. “Accordingly, I conclude the agency’s decision to remove the appellant did not exceed the tolerable limits of reasonableness and merited the removal penalty imposed by the agency.”
Hicks — who could still appeal the decision until it becomes final Nov. 24 — did not respond to TheDCNF’s requests for comment. Ledbetter could not be reached for comment.
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