Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
by
Adams, a member of the Arizona Air National Guard, worked in human resources for Customs and Border Patrol (the agency). In 2018, Adams performed three periods of National Guard military service. Between April 11 and July 13, Adams was activated under 10 U.S.C. 12301(d) to support a military personnel appropriation (MPA) tour in support of Twelfth Air Force; July 18-July 30, he was ordered to attend annual training under 32 U.S.C. 502(a). Between July 28 and September 30, Adams was again activated under section 12301(d) to support an MPA tour. Both 12301(d) orders stated that they were “non-contingency” activation orders.Under 5 U.S.C. 5538(a), federal employees who are absent from civilian positions due to certain military responsibilities may qualify to receive the difference between their military pay and what they would have been paid in their civilian employment during the time of their absence (differential pay). Adams requested differential pay for each of his periods of service. Adams appealed the agency's denials. The Merit Systems Protection Board held that the denials did not violate the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. 4301–4335). The Federal Circuit affirmed. Entitlement to differential pay requires service under a call to active duty that meets the statutory definition of a contingency operation. None of Adams’s service meets the statutory requirements for differential pay, View "Adams v. Department of Homeland Security" on Justia Law

by
Vestal was an IRS Agent and routinely had access to personally identifiable and other taxpayer information. She received annual “Privacy, Information Protection and Disclosure training.” In 2018, Vestal received a notice of proposed suspension for displaying discourteous and unprofessional conduct and for failing to follow managerial directives. In preparing her defense, she sent her attorney a record from a taxpayer’s file, which included personally identifiable and other taxpayer information. Vestal’s attorney was not authorized to receive such information. Vestal sent the record without obtaining authorization, without making redactions, and without relying on advice from legal counsel. Dubois, the deciding official, decided to remove Vestal from service, explaining in his removal letter “that a removal will promote the efficiency of the Service and that a lesser penalty would be inadequate.”The Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit affirmed an administrative judge in sustaining her removal. The disclosure was “very serious,” and intentional. The agency’s table of penalties recommends removal for any first offense of intentional disclosures of taxpayer information to unauthorized persons. While Vestal stated that she incorrectly believed that attorney-client privilege protected the disclosure, the administrative judge explained that Vestal nevertheless did “act[] intentionally.” Vestal’s prior suspension was aggravating; her job performance and her 10 years of service were mitigating though also supporting that she had ample notice of the seriousness of unauthorized disclosures of taxpayer information. View "Vestal v. Department of the Treasury" on Justia Law

by
In 2011, the Navy published a job announcement for an Event Forum Project Chief, a full-time, permanent, GS-13/14-grade position. Two candidates—Beck and Wible—were certified as qualified for the position. Captain Payton selected Wible. Beck, had been in active Navy service from 1984 until his retirement in 2005 and had been promoted through a series of jobs relevant to the posted position. In 2001, Beck earned a bachelor’s degree in business with a GPA of 3.91; he earned a master’s degree in Human Resource Management and Development in 2002. In 2006, Beck rejoined the Navy workforce as a civilian Special-Events Planning Officer (SEPO), a GS-13-1 grade position. Beck had trained Wible. Payton had apparently first shown animosity toward Beck during a meeting in 2010.Beck filed a formal EEO action alleging discrimination based on race, gender, age, and disability, which engendered a retaliatory and hostile work environment. Beck resigned and unsuccessfully eventually sought corrective action from the Merit Systems Protection Board under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. Preselection of the successful candidate can buttress an agency’s personnel decision to hire a less qualified candidate only when the preselection is not tainted by an unlawful discriminatory intent. The Board erred in finding that Beck’s non-selection would have occurred regardless of his prior military service as required under 38 U.S.C. 4311(c)(1). View "Beck v. Department of the Navy" on Justia Law

by
Pentagon Force Protection Agency officers filed claims for overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. 207(a)(1). Officers worked 8.5-hour shifts, with two 35-minute breaks, and were compensated for their entire shift except for one 30-minute meal period. Plaintiffs argue that they did not receive a bona fide meal period because they were required to work during breaks; they were not allowed to leave the Pentagon or remove their uniforms, nor to congregate in public or publicly engage in leisure activities. While on break, they had to remain ready to respond to emergencies, which occurred frequently. If an officer responded to an emergency during both break periods (unable to take a bona fide meal break), an overtime request was granted for one break period. Officers were to constantly monitor their radios and respond to questions from other employees or members of the public, which occurred frequently but could be avoided by going to a break room. They often used breaks for processing paperwork, completing mandatory training courses online, and refueling Pentagon vehicles.The Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the government. The Claims Court properly used the predominant benefit test and considered whether the employees were required to perform any “substantial duties” or give up a “substantial measure” of time and effort during a meal break, correctly focusing on “actual obligations,” rather than witness characterization. In the totality of the circumstances, Plaintiffs were the primary beneficiaries of their meal breaks. View "Akpeneye v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Santos’s affiliation with NASA started in 1997. In 2018, Santos, then a NASA mechanical engineer and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was transferred to a new division, under the supervision of Balles, chief of the Ground Systems Branch of the Commercial Division. Despite receiving multiple accolades for his service in previous years, Santos began receiving letters of instruction and reprimand under Balles, alleging deficient performance. Although Balles maintained that she had no problems with Santos’s mandatory military obligations, the timing of many letters coincided with Santos’s requests for military leave. The letters emphasized Santos’s ability to “report to work in a timely manner and maintain regular attendance at work.” After months of difficulties, Balles formally placed Santos on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and later issued a notice of proposed removal. The Merit Systems Protection Board upheld his removal, rejecting Santos’s claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. 4331(a).The Federal Circuit vacated. The Board’s decision to not consider Santos’s allegation that he should never have been placed on a PIP was based on a misinterpretation of 5 U.S.C. 4302(c)(6). The events leading to Santos’s PIP may be directly relevant to Santos’s ability to satisfy his initial burden under USERRA. View "Santos v. National Aeronautics and Space Administration" on Justia Law

by
In 1992, Brenner joined the VA as an attorney. In 2015, he suffered an accident that resulted in the amputation of his lower leg. He missed approximately six months of work and was reassigned to the Collections National Practice Group (CNPG). He received an overall “unacceptable” rating for 2017. Brenner unsuccessfully challenged the rating. In 2018, his supervisor proposed Brenner’s removal under 38 U.S.C. 714, listing 31 instances in which Brenner failed to meet deadlines and other errors. Brenner challenged the charges, citing his assignment to the CNPG and the “discrimination, retaliation, hostile work environment[,] and abuse of authority he has endured since.” Brenner also asserted that he had previously engaged in protected EEO and whistleblowing activity and attached copies of his complaints filed with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). He argued that the deciding official, Hipolit, was required to recuse himself, given his prior involvement in Brenner’s complaints and discipline.Following the conclusion of Brenner's OSC and OAWP cases, Hipolit upheld the proposed removal as supported by substantial evidence. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed, finding that Brenner had not proven his affirmative defenses. The Federal Circuit vacated. The MSPB erred when it concluded that the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, 38 U.S.C. 714, precluded, rather than required, review of the penalty imposed on Brenner and erred in applying the Act retroactively. View "Brenner v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

by
Holmes began working for the USPS in 1989. An investigation revealed that another letter carrier, Baxter, was selling marijuana from Baxter’s postal truck. Surveillance video showed Holmes and other USPS employees engaged in transactions with Baxter while on duty. Baxter later admitted to selling marijuana from his USPS vehicle; six other letter carriers admitted to purchasing marijuana from Baxter. Holmes denied purchasing marijuana while on duty. The surveillance video showed two relevant interactions between Baxter and Holmes, while on duty.At pre-disciplinary interviews, Holmes invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Following a Notice of Proposed Removal, Holmes met with the deciding official, Bush, and stated that he “wanted to apologize,” and that he “made this little mistake.” Bush issued a termination, explaining that removal was consistent with the penalties received by the other employees. Bush considered Holmes’s lengthy federal service and lack of disciplinary record but concluded that they did not outweigh the support for his removal. In five grievance arbitrations, the arbitrators mitigated the penalty to long-term suspension without back pay. Holmes instead appealed to the Merit System Protection Board, arguing that the agency had insufficient evidence to find that he purchased marijuana from Baxter.The Board upheld his removal. The Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the removal was arbitrary or otherwise not in accordance with law; obtained without procedures required by law,; or unsupported by substantial evidence, 5 U.S.C. 7703(c) View "Homes v. United States Postal Service" on Justia Law

by
Mouton-Miller worked for the Postal Service as an Audit Manager. Her position was classified as GG-0511-14, step 8, with a salary of $128,081. In 2017, Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General hired Mouton-Miller for the position of Supervisory Auditor, classified as GS-0511-14, step 8, with an initial pay rate of $142,367. There was no break between her Postal Service employment and her Homeland Security employment. Mouton-Miller’s Homeland Security position was subject to a one-year supervisory probationary period before becoming final. In March 2018, less than one year after beginning her position, Mouton-Miller received notice that she had “performed unsatisfactorily.” She was reassigned to the nonsupervisory position of Communications Analyst, GS-0301-14, step 7, with a $129,937 salary.The Merit Systems Protection Board dismissed Mouton-Miller’s appeal, determining that it lacked jurisdiction because the challenged agency action was excluded from the Board’s jurisdiction by 5 U.S.C. 7512(C). The Federal Circuit affirmed. For Mouton-Miller’s demotion to be an agency action subject to Board review, she must have completed the probationary period referred to in 5 U.S.C. 3312(a)(2). Mouton-Miller spent less than one year in her supervisory position at Homeland Security and her previous role at the Postal Service was in the excepted service; she has not satisfied the required supervisory probationary period. View "Mouton-Miller v. Merit Systems Protection Board" on Justia Law

by
Dr. Braun worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for almost 32 years as a research doctor with a specialty in neurological disorders. He obtained tenured status in 2003. In 2016, the NIH, which is located within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, removed Dr. Braun from his position after an audit revealed that his records were incomplete for all but 9% of the human subjects who had participated in his research over the course of six years.The Merit Systems Protection Board rejected Braun’s argument that an NIH policy required de-tenuring of tenured scientists (which NIH had not done in his case) before they could be removed for performance-related reasons and that the NIH committed certain other errors. The Board reasoned that the cited NIH policy allows removal “for cause” without de-tenuring. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The “for cause” provision was properly applied to this case. The evidence permitted the conclusions that Dr. Braun, “over a long period of time,” failed to a “dramatic and disturbing” degree, to comply with protocol requirements that exist “for the safety of the patients and the credibility of the research.” There was no denial of due process. View "Braun v. Department of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law

by
Harrington, a Bay Pines VA Healthcare System police officer, sent a photograph of a document contained on the secure agency server to a former VA police officer, Hooker, who was no longer employed by VA. VA had provided Hooker with a text file of the contents of that document in response to a FOIA request but did not provide the document itself. Two weeks later, Congress enacted the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017; 38 U.S.C. 714 speeds up removal proceedings, lowers VA’s burden of proof at the Merit Systems Protection Board from a preponderance of the evidence to substantial evidence, and eliminates the MSPB’s authority to mitigate VA’s imposed penalty. The VA brought a removal action under section 714, alleging misconduct by sending the photograph, and issued a decision removing Harrington. The MSPB found that substantial evidence supported the charge of misconduct and did not review the appropriateness of the severity of the penalty.The Federal Circuit vacated. Section 714 does not apply to proceedings instituted based on conduct occurring before its enactment. The proper interpretation of section 714 requires the MSPB to review the entire decision below, including the choice of penalty. View "Harrington v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law