Justia U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Valles began working for the State Department as a passport specialist in 2011. In 2016, Valles served a three-day suspension for charges concerning inappropriate sexual and political comments made to co-workers and customers. In 2018, Valles served a five-day suspension for failure to follow instructions and failure to protect personally identifiable information. In 2019, Valles received a performance appraisal of “Fully Successful” for 2018.The agency nonetheless proposed Valles’ removal based on four charges from 18 specifications dating between July 2018 and February 2019. Some of the alleged conduct occurred during the 2018 evaluation period. The charges included failure to follow instructions, failure to properly move along applications and provide updates, leaving a passport application on a photocopier, failure to follow policies concerning the handling of fees, not maintaining control over applications, leaving his adjudication stamp unsecured, and drinking from a wine glass at his workstation in the public counter.An administrative judge upheld the termination. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The agency proved all the charges and established a nexus between the proven misconduct and the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. The penalty was reasonable, considering all the relevant “Douglas” factors, including the repeated nature and seriousness of the misconduct, Valles’ prior discipline, his seven years of federal service and job performance, the consistency of the penalty with similar cases, and the lack of rehabilitation potential on Valles’ part. View "Valles v. Department of State" on Justia Law

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Courtney, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Investigator, was removed from her federal employment effective December 7, 2019, based on a charge of being absent without leave. Her removal was affirmed by the Merit Systems Protection Board and Federal Circuit. Courtney applied to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for disability retirement benefits, asserting that she suffered from vision-related ailments, asthma, and diabetes. As a result of the vision problems, she said, she was unable to perform her duties, which were all computer-based, and she had difficulty commuting. Courtney alleged that she had requested reasonable accommodations that were not granted. The EEOC indicated that requested reasonable accommodations had been provided and that Courtney’s performance even with her alleged disability “was not less than fully successful” (even if her conduct was unsatisfactory).OPM denied her application, concluding that Courtney had failed to establish that her medical condition was incompatible with useful service or that the agency-provided reasonable accommodations were ineffective. The Merit Systems Protection Board and Federal Circuit affirmed, agreeing with an administrative judge that although Courtney met some of the requirements for disability retirement, she had not established that she was unable “to render useful and efficient service” in light of her disability—a requirement of 5 U.S.C. 8451(a)(1)(B). View "Courtney v. Office of Personnel Management" on Justia Law

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Courtney, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Investigator. was removed from her federal employment effective December 7, 2019, premised on a charge of being absent without leave (AWOL) for several months. An administrative judge first determined that the EEOC had proven its AWOL charge by a preponderance of the evidence then determined that Courtney had failed to establish her affirmative defenses—allegations of retaliation for EEO activity, discrimination based on disability, and harmful procedural errors. The administrative judge determined that there was a nexus between the AWOL charge and the efficiency of the federal service because an “essential element of employment is to be on the job when one is expected to be there” and agreed that removal was appropriate given the agency’s thorough analysis, which relied on the seriousness of Courtney’s misconduct, the length of her absence, and her supervisor’s statement regarding a loss in confidence in her based on her failures to communicate.The Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit affirmed, noting evidence that Courtney was AWOL from March 25 to December 7, 2019, that she provided no medical excuse for her absence, and that the EEOC had granted every requested accommodation. View "Courtney v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Bullock, a civilian employed by the Army, received a formal letter of reprimand from her supervisor. Bullock filed an EEO claim alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. In proceedings before the EEOC’s mediation program, Bullock was represented by her attorney, Elliott; the Army was represented by its management official Shipley, and attorney Lynch. According to Bullock, the parties reached agreement as to seven non-monetary demands on July 29 and reached an oral agreement regarding her monetary demands on August 27, 2015. The mediating administrative judge sent an email to the parties asking for the “agency’s understanding of the provisions of the settlement agreement” and noting that, “[o]nce we confirm that the parties are in complete agreement, the agency can begin work on the written settlement agreement.”. No written settlement agreement was executed. In September, the Army “rescinded its settlement offer.” Bullock continued to press her claims before the EEOC for a year, then filed a breach of contract claim regarding an oral settlement agreement.The Federal Circuit reversed the dismissal of the complaint, rejecting an argument that EEOC and Army regulations, requiring that settlement agreements be in writing, preclude enforcement of oral settlement agreements. The court remanded for a determination of whether the representative of the Army had the authority to enter a settlement agreement and whether the parties actually reached an agreement. View "Bullock v. United States" on Justia Law

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Rodriguez, a Supervisory Consumer Affairs Specialist with the VA Patient Advocate’s Office, engaged in a confrontation with a patient, yelling at the patient and using profanity. VA Police officers had to escort him back to his office. Rodriguez returned to the reception area, where he again confronted the patient. During an investigation, Rodriguez was temporarily relieved of his supervisory responsibilities. Rodriguez contacted one of his subordinates and asked her to modify her witness statement. The investigator made findings of patient abuse, violation of the VA Code of Conduct, failure to follow the officer’s instruction, attempted coercion, and lack of candor in Rodriguez’s accounts of the incident, and concluded that the appropriate penalty was removal. Rodriguez had a previous disciplinary incident. After Rodriguez was given an opportunity to reply, the Director issued a removal decision.The Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge, citing 38 U.S.C. 714, found the charges supported by substantial evidence. The Federal Circuit reversed the removal order. the administrative judge misinterpreted section 714 when he ruled that “substantial evidence” is the proper standard for determining whether an employee has engaged in misconduct that justifies discipline; preponderance of the evidence is the minimal appropriate burden of proof in administrative proceedings. Although section 714 provides that the Board may not mitigate penalties, the Board has the authority to review penalties for substantial evidence. View "Rodriguez v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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In 2007, Connor began working as the Chief of Police Services for the Fayetteville, North Carolina VA Medical Center. After it was discovered that Connor had stored ammunition in a manner inconsistent with VA policy, the VA investigated allegations of mismanagement at Fayetteville, including the failure to inventory ammunition, misuse of government vehicles, lack of training, unfair hiring and promotion practices, employee misconduct, and lack of leadership. In 2019, Fayetteville's Executive Director sustained 27 specifications against Connor and the penalty of removal under 38 U.S.C. 714. The Merit Systems Protection Board determined that the VA had failed to prove 26 specifications by substantial evidence, upholding specification 25, regarding the improper storage of ammunition. The Board held that the “Douglas factors” remained applicable and upheld the VA’s charge and the penalty of removal.The Federal Circuit affirmed. Section 714 of the 2017 Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act created an expedited procedure allowing the VA Secretary to remove, demote, or suspend VA employees for misconduct or substandard performance; it limits review of disciplinary actions by administrative judges and the Board. A disciplinary decision must be upheld if “supported by substantial evidence.” The administrative judge and the Board “shall not mitigate the penalty prescribed by the Secretary.” Section 714 does not alter the penalty review with respect to the Douglas factors. The court rejected Connor’s argument that the Board did not adequately consider those factors. View "Connor v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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Dr. Islam, a tenured electrical and computer engineering professor at University of Michigan, received an additional appointment at UM’s medical school. Upon joining the faculty, he executed an employment agreement and agreed to abide by UM’s bylaws, which provide that patents issued or acquired as a result of or in connection with administration, research, or other educational activities supported directly or indirectly by funds administered by the University and all revenues derived therefrom are the property of the University. Property rights in computer software resulting from activities that received no support are the property creator. In cases involving both University-supported activity and independent activity, property rights in resulting work products are owned as agreed upon before any exploitation thereof.In 2012, Islam took an unpaid leave-of-absence from UM to start a new Biomedical Laser Company. During his leave, Islam filed provisional patent applications. Upon returning to UM, he filed non-provisional applications claiming priority to those provisional applications. Islam later assigned the patent rights to Omni. Those patents are ancestors of the patents-in-suit, which are not directly related to Islam’s teaching. UM refused to confirm Islam’s ownership of his inventions, noting the expenditure of medical school funds to support the cost of Islam’s space, time required to process Islam’s appointment to the medical school, and “medical school faculty partners who have helped springboard ideas.”In 2018, Omni sued Apple, asserting infringement. The district court denied Apple’s motion to dismiss for lack of standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed. UM’s bylaws did not effectuate a present automatic assignment of Islam’s patent rights. View "Omni Medsci, Inc. v. Apple Inc." on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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