Miller v. Clinton: Court Says State Dept Not/Not Exempt from Age Discrimination Law

We previously blogged about the Miller v. Clinton case in November 2010 (see Miller v. Clinton: Amcit FSN Takes State Dept to Court for Age Discrimination).

On November 4, 2010, the district court granted the State Department’s motion and dismissed the case with prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), holding that the Secretary of State may exempt employees hired under the authority of § 2669(c) from the statutory protections of the ADEA.

The case eventually landed in the Court of Appeals and on August 7, 2012, in a 2-1 decision the lower court’s decision was reversed. The opinion for the Court is filed by Circuit Judge GARLAND; the dissenting opinion is filed by Circuit Judge KAVANAUGH

Excerpts:

GARLAND, Circuit Judge: There is no dispute that the State Department terminated the employment of John R. Miller, Jr., a United States citizen working abroad, solely because he turned sixty-five years old. Indeed, it is the position of the Department that it is free to terminate employees like Miller on account of their age. Moreover, the necessary consequence of the Department’s position is that it is also free from any statutory bar against terminating an employee like Miller solely on account of his disability or race or religion or sex.

After being dismissed on his sixty-fifth birthday, Miller brought suit alleging that his forced retirement violated the federal employment provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 633a. Accepting the State Department’s position, the district court dismissed Miller’s complaint on the ground that the statute under which Miller was hired, section 2(c) of the Basic Authorities Act, 22 U.S.C. § 2669(c), permits the Department to exempt Miller from the protections of the ADEA. We reverse, finding nothing in the Basic Authorities Act that abrogates the ADEA’s broad proscription against personnel actions that discriminate on the basis of age.

Miller is a U.S. citizen who was employed by the Department of State as a safety inspector at the U.S. embassy in Paris, France. He was hired in October 2003 as “locally employed staff” pursuant to a personal services agreement. Miller’s contract was negotiated and signed under the authority of section 2(c) of the Basic Authorities Act, which authorizes the Secretary of State to “employ individuals or organizations, by contract, for services abroad.” 22 U.S.C. § 2669(c); see U.S. Dep’t of State Personal Servs. Agreement (J.A. 23) (identifying 22 U.S.C. § 2669(c) as the exclusive “[s]tatutory authority for this agreement”). The proper construction of § 2669(c) is the central issue on this appeal.

Among other standard contractual provisions, Miller’s employment contract incorporates by reference “[a]ll provisions of the local compensation plan” for Foreign Service National employees in France. J.A. 23. One provision of the Local Compensation Plan (LCP) is a mandatory retirement clause. That clause follows the (apparently) prevailing French practice of mandating retirement at age sixty-five, and expressly states that “[a]ge 65 is the mandatory age limit for all employees under the LCP.” Foreign Serv. Nat’l Comp. Plan (J.A. 26).

In accordance with the mandatory retirement clause, Miller was advised by letter dated March 22, 2007 that he would be separated from his position due to age, effective July 23, 2007, his sixty-fifth birthday. There is no dispute among the parties that the sole reason for Miller’s termination was his age. The Department has not identified any concerns regarding Miller’s job performance or his ability to perform his duties. According to Miller’s supervisor, “[t]here was no other reason, to my knowledge, for Mr. Miller’s separation[;] it was strictly the mandatory age issue.” Kenan H. Hunter, EEO Investigative Aff. (J.A. 90).

In case you did not know this, the USG may discriminate against “aliens” employed outside the United States. More from the Miller opinion:

In 1974, Congress amended the ADEA to address “[n]ondiscrimination on account of age in Federal Government employment.” 29 U.S.C. § 633a. Section 633a broadly declares that “[a]ll personnel actions affecting employees or applicants for employment who are at least 40 years of age . . . shall be made free from any discrimination based on age.” Id. § 633a(a). The section includes an exception for “personnel actions with regard to aliens employed outside the limits of the United States,” id. (emphasis added), but contains no parallel exception for U.S. citizens so employed. Accordingly, it is undisputed that, as a general matter, the protections of § 633a extend extraterritorially to cover United States citizens employed by federal agencies abroad. See id. (stating that the statute is applicable to “executive agencies as defined in section 105 of Title 5”); see also 5 U.S.C. § 105 (“For purposes of this title, ‘Executive Agency’ means an Executive Department [or] a Government corporation.”).

Ah – but Miller is not an “alien” or an FSO who is subject to mandatory retirement:

[I]n several statutes Congress has clearly and affirmatively authorized the kind of mandatory retirement clause at issue here — but for specified classes of government employees that, again, do not include Miller. The statute that governs the Foreign Service Retirement and Disability System is one example. It states that “any participant shall be retired from the Service at the end of the month in which the participant has reached age 65.” 22 U.S.C. § 4052(a)(1). In Strawberry v. Albright, 111 F.3d 943 (D.C. Cir. 1997), a State Department employee who participated in a pension system governed by § 4052(a)(1) brought suit contending that the system’s mandatory retirement provision violated the ADEA. Not surprisingly, this court had little difficulty concluding that “the ADEA’s general prohibition of age discrimination does not prohibit enforcement of the mandatory retirement provision[]” for participants in the system, because § 4052(a)(1) specifically mandates retirement at age sixty-five and was passed after the ADEA was made applicable to federal employees. Id. at 947. Section 4052(a)(1) does not apply to Miller, however, because he was never a member of the Foreign Service or a participant in its retirement system.

One of the arguments employed by USG lawyers is to insist that “even if the statutory language is ambiguous, “the Secretary’s longstanding interpretation . . . is entitled to deference” under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). DOS Br. 18. Under Chevron’s familiar second step, “if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific” point at issue, a court must uphold the agency’s interpretation as long as it is reasonable.”

The Court did not buy that and notes that “the State Department acknowledged that the Secretary has never promulgated a written interpretation of § 2669(c) that asserts the section authorizes her to find the ADEA inapplicable to a contract like Miller’s.” It also points out that “there is no evidence that the current Secretary or any of her predecessors ever knew of the interpretation being advanced in their names. Instead, the Department asks us to rely upon the contract itself, which, the Department says, reflects the agency’s consistent practice of at least twenty years.”

But here is the most interesting part of the opinion:

At oral argument, Department counsel suggested that, if U.S. employment discrimination laws were applicable to U.S. citizens hired abroad under § 2669(c), State Department supervisors might prefer to hire foreign workers who are not protected by those statutes. Oral Arg. Recording 25:00-26:15. Our dissenting colleague proffers a similar explanation of his own. Dissent at 7-9. This line of reasoning does not appear anywhere in the legislative history.28 Nor is that surprising. It requires the assumption that State Department supervisors would prefer to hire employees against whom they are free to discriminate — and that in the absence of a “level” playing field permitting them to discriminate against everyone, those supervisors would decline to hire U.S. citizens.

The Court is shocked 😯 and calls out the callousness and hypocrisy of the institution whose mission is to “Shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

Indeed, while it would be surprising for Congress to assume such callousness on the part of State Department officials, it is more than merely surprising to hear the Department make the same assumption about its own people. And that is doubly so in light of the repeated declarations that it “provides equal opportunity and fair and equitable treatment in employment to all people without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, political affiliation, marital status, or sexual orientation.”
[…]
[W]e conclude that the legislative history’s vague references to “flexibility” and “competitive[ness]” are insufficient to indicate a congressional intent to permit the State Department to discriminate against U.S. citizens hired abroad.

And so the reversal:

The judgment of the district court, granting the State Department’s motion to dismiss Miller’s ADEA claim, is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Don’t say amen yet.  This is not the end of this, just wait …

Domani Spero

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2 responses

  1. I understand your and the Court’s indignance about the possibility of not hiring U.S. citizens for local jobs. One thing to consider though is how would morale be in a section where one person is treated differently when, technically, that person is in a same or similar job as their colleagues, hired in the same mannerm and suppose to be abiding by the same rules and laws. Embassies are suppose to abide by the local regulations and laws and would be giving preferenceal treatment to one local employee over another if they followed local laws for one person and not another.

    • Robin-thanks for the note. Actually, I have thought about the possible morale implication of this. When EFMs work at our mission overseas, there are already resentments because they, too, as perceived by local employees, are treated differently. But sometimes, you also see job vacancies advertized with a level 4 local language requirement even when English is widely spoken in the host country. This makes one quickly realize that post really wants to hire a local employee and not an EFM. Something similar as suggested in the Court’s opinion may play out on cases similar to the Miller case. Either that or somebody will prod Congress to add U.S. citizens hired overseas by the USG as another category exempted from ADEA. We’ll have to see.

      My understanding is that Miller was hired under US Embassy France’s local compensation program, which mandates retirement at 65. I thought this would be upheld by the court. But he is also a U.S. citizen hired overseas. And the laws in the books, at least according to this opinion, indicates that while aliens hired overseas are not protected by ADEA, and FSOs under the Foreign Service Act are subject to mandatory retirement — U.S. citizens hired by the Feds abroad are protected by the ADEA, as they are protected inside the United States. I don’t think the court look at this as preferential treatment, instead, I think the Court look at this as equal treatment of a U.S. citizen regardless of where he/she was hired. I included a link to the Court’s opinion in my blog post, if you want to read the full text.

      As to that matter about being indignant — the State Department already has a “get out of jail” ADEA card when it discriminates against FSNs hired overseas and when it kicks out 65 year old FSOs out the airlock. Congress gave it the card. The State Dept management has also adamantly refused to engage with http://www.ifsanet.org/, and refused to appoint an Ombudsman for Foreign Service National employees. Considering that this is the largest group of employees in the Foreign Service, and management repeatedly calls them the backbone of the Foreign Service, ought they not deserve more?

      And so — me thinks a little less breast thumping about providing “equal opportunity and fair and equitable treatment in employment to all people without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, political affiliation, marital status, or sexual orientation” would actually be nice. That’s where, possibly what you perceived as indignation came from.