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

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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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

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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

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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

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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

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Esparraguera was removed for performance reasons from her position as the Army’s top labor lawyer and placed into another high-level position at the same agency but outside the Senior Executive Service (SES). Federal civil service is divided into the competitive service, the excepted service, and the SES, 5 U.S.C. 2101a, 2102, 2103. . Esparraguera’s request for reconsideration was denied by the Under Secretary. She requested an informal hearing under 5 U.S.C. 3592(a)(2), which entitled her to “appear and present arguments” before an official designated by the Merit Systems Protection Board. By statute, she could not avail herself of the ordinary appellate provisions of the Board. Esparraguera submitted exhibits designated A through UU into evidence and read a prepared statement into the record. The Army neither presented evidence nor objected to the entry of these exhibits. Esparraguera did not expressly ask the Board to review her removal—and it did not. The Board official issued the Order Referring Record, which summarized the proceedings. The Army did not change its decision.Esparraguera argued that she was deprived of constitutionally protected property and liberty interests without due process. The Federal Circuit dismissed her appeal. An “Order Referring Record” is not a “final order or decision” of the Board, as required for appellate jurisdiction. View "Esparraguera v. Department of the Army" on Justia Law

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Alleshouse and Yeh are named as the inventors on the 685 and 189 patents, which claim water-park attractions that individuals may ride as if surfing, and on the 433 patent, which claims nozzle configurations for regulating water flow in such attractions. Pacific, the company Alleshouse and Yeh formed to develop and market such attractions, is the assignee of the patents. Whitewater is the successor of Wave, which employed Alleshouse until just before he went into business with Yeh and the patented inventions were conceived. Whitewater sued Alleshouse, Yeh, and Pacific, claiming that Alleshouse had to assign each of the patents to Whitewater, as Wave’s successor, under the terms of Alleshouse’s employment contract with Wave. Whitewater also claimed that Yeh, who had not been employed by Whitewater or its predecessors and therefore was not under any alleged assignment duty, was improperly listed as an inventor on each of the patents.The district court held that Alleshouse breached the employment agreement, so Whitewater was entitled to an assignment of the patent interests, and Yeh was improperly joined as an inventor. The Federal Circuit reversed, The contract’s assignment provision is void under California law, (Labor Code 2870, 2872; Business and Professions Code 16600), so Whitewater lacks standing to contest inventorship. View "Whitewater West Industries Ltd. v. Alleshouse" on Justia Law

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Dr. Hessami was the Chief of Pharmacy at a West Virginia VA Medical Center when the first curative therapies for Hepatitis C Virus infection (HCV) entered the market. The Center struggled to provide patients with access to the enormously expensive but life-saving new therapies. The Regional Veteran Integrated Service Network funded and provided treatment guidelines for administration of HCV therapies. Hessami was familiar with HCV treatment guidelines, monitored all purchases of HCV medications, and provided information to the VISN. Hessami repeatedly raised concerns about the prescribing practices of one physician, asserting that treatment decisions were unnecessarily exposing patients to increased risk of adverse drug reactions and side effects, and overspending the Center’s HCV funds. Hessami claims that her comments were met with hostile, derogatory statements. A pharmacy employee accused Hessami of misconduct. Hessami was suspended and later demoted. The Merit Systems Protection Board dismissed her claim that she had been accused of wrongdoing and punished in reprisal for her protected disclosures regarding the agency’s spending.The Federal Circuit vacated. When determining whether an appellant has non-frivolously alleged that she disclosed information that she reasonably believed evidenced misconduct under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8), the Board’s inquiry should be limited to evaluating whether the appellant has alleged sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face. The Board erroneously relied on the testimony of agency witnesses in dismissing Hessami’s appeal. View "Hessami v. Merit Systems Protection Board" on Justia Law

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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exempts from overtime requirements those employed in an executive, administrative, or professional capacity, 29 U.S.C. 213(a)(1). If an employer violates the overtime requirement, it is liable for unpaid overtime compensation plus an equal amount as liquidated damages. If the employer shows “good faith and that [it] had reasonable grounds for believing that [its] act or omission was not a violation," the court may award no liquidated damages. The FLSA applies to civilian employees of the federal government. In 2007, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) classified Shea’s position, Investigations Specialist, as exempt from the overtime requirements.The Claims Court held that NCIS that it had not willfully misclassified Shea, so that the relevant period started in 2014, and found that Shea’s team leader duty was optional and comprised a minority of the Investigations Specialist position’s duties so that Shea’s primary duty was not management but was “conducting surveillance,” which would not qualify for the administrative exemption. The court awarded Shea compensatory damages and back pay but denied liquidated damages, finding NCIS’s classification decision objectively reasonable and in good faith. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The statute does not require documentation of the original classification decision and requiring frequent classification review would be untenable. Between the position description and the testimony of Shea, his supervisor, and NCIS’s classification witness, the evidence supports the holding that NCIS reasonably believed that Shea’s position had substantial managerial duties. View "Shea v. United States" on Justia Law

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Ramirez was a Customs Officer, required to remain medically qualified to carry a service firearm. His wife reported to the police that he had cocked his service weapon and pointed it at her head. The police concluded that the allegations were unfounded. Ramirez was not charged. The Agency temporarily revoked Ramirez’s authority to carry a firearm and ordered a fitness-for-duty evaluation, with a psychiatric evaluation. His first evaluation was inconclusive. A second psychiatrist was also unable to assess Ramirez’s dangerousness but recommended that Ramirez be restricted from weapons-carrying positions based on his “lack of full cooperativeness.” A third-party psychologist had determined that Ramirez’s Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory results were invalid due to “extreme defensiveness.” Ramirez answered every MMPI question; the finding was based on his answers. The Agency terminated him.In arbitration, the Agency denied Ramirez access to the MMPI assessments and interpretations. Ramirez offered the testimony of his own expert, who administered another MMPI and interpreted his scores as within a range typical among law enforcement personnel. After a fourth fitness-for-duty evaluation and MMPI assessment, the same psychologist again interpreted the results as invalid “because of high defensiveness.” The arbitrator affirmed Ramirez’s removal and denied Ramirez’s request to order the Agency to produce the records of his MMPI assessments.The Federal Circuit vacated. The arbitrator did not exceed his authority by seeking additional evidence after issuing his interim award but Ramirez was entitled to a meaningful opportunity to review and challenge the assessments underlying his adverse psychiatric evaluations. View "Ramirez v. Department of Homeland Security" on Justia Law

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In 2014-2018, Harris was the Branch Chief of the Continuity of Operations (COOP) branch, a division of the SEC’s Office of Support Operations (OSO) in Washington, D.C. In mid-2017, performance issues began to surface with respect to the Achieving Results in Occupation and Teamwork and Collaboration critical elements of her performance evaluations. The notice described examples such as disregarding supervisory guidance, coming to meetings unprepared, and demonstrating inflexibility. Harris had 90 days to improve her performance by satisfying 15 Performance Improvement Requirements (PIP). In January 2018, after that period ended, Harris received a notice of proposed removal, identifying eight instances of failing to meet the Performance Improvement Requirements. In February 2018, Harris was removed from the agency for “unacceptable performance” of her duties, 5 U.S.C. 4303(a).The Merit Systems Protection Board and Federal Circuit upheld her removal. Substantial evidence indicates that Harris was sufficiently warned of her inadequate performance. Harris has not shown that her PIP standards were unreasonable. None of the agency’s actions during the PIP amount to sufficient evidence of pretext to call into question the well-supported conclusion that Harris received a meaningful opportunity to improve her performance. The court noted that Harris had waived any claims of discrimination or retaliation. View "Harris v. Securities and Exchange Commission" on Justia Law