Posted: 2:14 am ET
Last year, we blogged about a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board concerning a Whistleblower Protection Act case where a State Department employee, Timothy Allen Rainey, alleged that the agency stripped him of certain job duties and gave him a poor performance rating after he refused to follow an order that would have required him to violate federal acquisition regulations (FAR) and training certification procedures. See Rainey v. State Department: “Right-to-Disobey” (Precedential Decision).
On June 7, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the Merit Systems Protection Board ruling in a precedent-setting opinion — agreeing that the term “a law” in section 2302(b)(9)(D) refers only to a statute, and not to a rule or regulation.
In this IRA appeal, Rainey claimed that his duties as contracting officer had been taken away from him because he refused to obey his supervisor’s order to tell a contractor to rehire a terminated subcontractor. Rainey contended that he refused to obey the order because dong so would have required him to violate a provision of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The issue was whether the right-to-disobey provision of the Whistleblower Protection Act, 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(9)(D), which protects covered employees from retaliation “for refusing to obey an order that would require the individual to violate a law,” applied to the appellant, who alleged that he had suffered retaliation for refusing to obey an order that would require him to violate a regulation. The Board, relying on a recent Supreme Court decision, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, 135 S. Ct. 913 (2015), which held that the word “law” in the “right-to-disclose” provision of the WPA, 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8), refers only to statute, and not to a rule or regulation, ruled that the term “a law” in section 2302(b)(9)(D) should also be interpreted to refer to a statute, and not to a rule or regulation. 122 M.S.P.R. 592 (2015).
The Court writes:
Dr. Rainey makes a final argument that the FAR is a particularly important regulation that has the full force and effect of law and therefore should be regarded as “a law” within the meaning of section 2302(b)(9)(D) even if other regulations do not qualify as “laws” for purposes of that statute. The first problem with that argument is that substantive agency regulations that are promulgated pursuant to statutory authority typically have the “force and effect of law,” see Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, 135 S. Ct. 1199, 1204 (2015); Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281, 295 (1979), so that feature does not distinguish the FAR from other more quotidian legislative rules. The second problem with the argument is that, as noted, there is nothing in the section 2302(b)(9) that even hints at a distinction between important regulations and less important regulations; to the contrary, the statute distinguishes between “a law” and “law, rule, or regulation,” and the FAR clearly falls on the “regulation” side of that divide.
What now? Court says “Congress is free to alter the scope of the statute”:
Dr. Rainey’s arguments are heavy on policy reasons why Congress likely would not have wanted to confine the scope of section 2302(b)(9)(D) to statutes. Those policy considerations are not without force, and it may be that the statute should be extended to cover rules, regulations, and other sources of legal authority. If so, Congress is free to alter the scope of the statute. But we are not so free. Between the restrictive language chosen by Congress and the closely analogous decision of the Supreme Court in MacLean, we are constrained to hold that the protection granted by section 2302(b)(9)(D) is limited to orders that are contrary to a statute, and does not encompass orders that are contrary to a regulation.
This is bad. So basically State Department employees will not be able to get whistleblower protection for refusing orders that violate rules or regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual/Foreign Affairs Handbook. If a supervisor orders an employee to break the rules/regs in the FAM/FAH, the employee must comply or be subjected to disciplinary action/s? How nutty is that?
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Read the ruling below or read it via mspb.gov here (PDF).