A Cautionary Tale: Divorce, Death and Survivor Benefits

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Via Beckstead v. Office of Personnel Management, 2020-1884 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 7, 2021) (MSPB Docket No. DE-0831-20-0119-I-1):
The court affirmed the administrative judge’s affirmance of OPM’s final decision denying the petitioner former spouse survivor annuity benefits. The court found that the survivor annuity election made during the petitioner’s marriage with the decedent terminated upon their post-retirement divorce and, despite the decedent’s receiving notice as required by statute of the election rights and obligations, no valid election was made or valid court order was issued granting the petitioner a former spouse survivor annuity.
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Background: Mrs. Beckstead was married to Lynn Beckstead (“Mr. Beckstead”) on February 4, 1965.
In 1971, Mr. Beckstead became a federal employee covered under the Civil Service Retirement System.
In 2007, he applied for retirement and elected a survivor annuity for his spouse, Mrs. Beckstead. Each year after Mr. Beckstead’s retirement, the Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) sent him an Annual Notice of Survivor Annuity Election Rights (“Annual Notice”).
On December 3, 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Beckstead divorced. A state court in New Mexico issued a Default Decree of Dissolution of Marriage (“Divorce Decree”), which stated in relevant part that Mrs. Beckstead was entitled to:
Exactly one half (1/2) of any and all retirement benefits, 401(k) or other retirement account of [Lynn]. Such account(s) to be divided by Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). 
SAppx. 10. The Divorce Decree did not specifically provide for a survivor annuity, and no QDRO was issued while Mr. Beckstead was alive. Following the divorce, Mr. Beckstead did not notify OPM of the divorce and he never made a new election of a survivor annuity for Mrs. Beckstead.
Mr. Beckstead died on July 9, 2018, and Mrs. Beckstead applied for survivor annuity benefits thereafter. OPM informed Mrs. Beckstead that her application could not be processed because her Divorce Decree did not include the referenced QDRO.
On January 18, 2019, more than seven months after Mr. Beckstead’s death, the New Mexico state court issued a QDRO. SAppx. 24–26.
On March 19, 2019, OPM informed Mrs. Beckstead that she was not entitled to survivor annuity benefits because the QDRO was issued after Mr. Beckstead’s death. OPM then reconsidered and reversed its decision on the basis that the agency had failed to properly notify Mr. Beckstead of his rights to preserve the survivor annuity benefit after a divorce. SAppx. 32. Upon further review, however, OPM concluded that Mr. Beckstead had received notices informing him of his rights, but he did not elect a survivor annuity for Mrs. Beckstead after their divorce. Thus, on December 6, 2019, OPM confirmed its initial finding that Mrs. Beckstead was not entitled to former spouse survivor annuity benefits. SAppx. 35–36.
Read in full here (pdf).

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Do you know the statutory definition of “widow” for benefit purposes?

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Gibson v. Office of Personnel Management, No. 2020-1651 (Fed. Cir. September 9, 2020) (MSPB Docket No. PH-0831-20-0011-I-1): The appellant sought survivor annuity benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System, contending that she is a “widow” of a retired Federal employee. OPM denied the appellant’s application for benefits, finding that she did not meet the statutory definition of “widow” for benefit purposes under 5 U.S.C. § 8341(a)(1)(A), because the marriage to her husband lasted from May 21, 2018, until his death on February 15, 2019 (270 days). This was short of the “at least 9 months” requirement. On appeal, the Board affirmed OPM’s determination. Before the Federal Circuit, the appellant contested the application of the term “months” and argued that each month should be counted as having 30 days, meaning her 270-day marriage was 9 months in duration. The court rejected this argument and affirmed the Board’s final decision. Citing Supreme Court precedent as support, the court concluded that the phrase “9 months” has an “ordinary public meaning” that counts time as calendar months. The court further explained that Congress often uses, including in the statute at issue, “days” as a unit of measurement and could have done so in 5U.S.C. § 8341(a)(1)(A) if that were its intention. The appellant presented no grounds for “erasing the clear distinction between familiar counting methods.”

http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions-orders/20-1651.OPINION.9-9-2020_1649543.pdf

 


 

 

OPM: Protect Employee Privacy Interests During COVID-19

Via OPM:

Under what circumstances should an agency communicate to its employees that there is a confirmed case among one or more of its employees (without identifying the person/specific office)?

The infected employee’s privacy should be protected to the greatest extent possible; therefore, his or her identity should not be disclosed. In an outbreak of quarantinable communicable disease or COVID-19, management should share only that information determined to be necessary to protect the health of the employees in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Supervisors should consult with their agency general counsel to determine what information is releasable. Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/assess-manage-risk.html.
If social distancing, information sharing, or other precautions to assist employees in recognizing symptoms or reducing the spread of the illness can be taken without disclosing information related to a specific employee, that is the preferred approach. Managers should work with their workplace safety contacts and local health officials to stay apprised of information regarding transmission of the illness and precautions that should be taken to reduce the spread of influenza or any other contagious disease in the workplace. Managers should treat this as they would any other illness in the workplace and continue to protect employee privacy interests while providing sufficient information to all employees related to protecting themselves against the spread of illness.
Source: (PDF)

Office of Special Counsel Announces Suspensions of Two Federal Employees Over Hatch Act Violations

 

On October 18, the Office of Special Counsel announced disciplinary actions imposed on two federal employees working for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for Hatch Act violations.

​The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today announced significant discipline imposed on two federal employees working for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) who engaged in prohibited political activity in violation of the Hatch Act.

One DLA employee violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by sending partisan political emails and making political Facebook posts while at work.  The employee also used Facebook to solicit political contributions nearly two dozen times in violation of the Act.  During OSC’s investigation, the employee admitted he was aware of the Hatch Act and that his supervisor had counseled him about the Act prior to engaging in the prohibited activity.  In a settlement agreement, the employee agreed to a 90-day suspension without pay.

Another DLA employee violated the Hatch Act by displaying the words “Vote Republican” on a PowerPoint presentation that he gave while on duty and in the federal workplace.  The employee had received extensive Hatch Act training and was explicitly told prior to giving the presentation that certain images he planned to use, including the “Vote Republican” image, would be problematic.  In a settlement agreement, the employee agreed to a 30-day suspension without pay for his violation.

“With election season drawing near, it is critical that federal employees understand and abide by their Hatch Act obligations,” said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner. “As demonstrated in these two cases, there are significant repercussions for federal employees who violate the Hatch Act.”

Note that last June, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) sent a report to President Donald J. Trump finding that Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media. “Given that Ms. Conway is a repeat offender and has shown disregard for the law, OSC recommends that she be removed from federal service.”
On June 13, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) said it “respects the Office of White House Counsel but respectfully disagrees with its position, and will not withdraw its Report​ sent to the President today finding numerous Hatch Act violations made by Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway (OSC File Nos. HA-19-0631 and HA-19-3395).”

State/OIG Hotline and Resources For Whistleblowers in the Federal Service

 

 

Report: @StateDept Puts On Leave Staffer Who Allegedly Oversees Local Chapter of a White Nationalist Group

 

 

On August 7, the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Hatewatch program linked a staffer at the Bureau of Energy Resources (State/ENR) to a white nationalist organization in the Washington, D.C. area.  Hatewatch alleged in its report that this individual “oversaw the Washington, D.C.-area chapter of a white nationalist organization, hosted white nationalists at his home and published white nationalist propaganda online.”
We asked the State Department for a comment beyond what was already reported (that the agency is an “inclusive organization”). An agency spokesperson did confirm that this individual is employed by the agency as a foreign affairs officer assigned to the Bureau of Energy Resources. The Department further stated that it cannot comment on personnel issues but “is committed to providing an inclusive workplace.”
Reports indicate that the individual is a “foreign affairs officer“, a Civil Service position in the 0130 Foreign Affairs series. These positions are typically located in the DC area, and though may involved occasional travel, it is not a rotational position. Incumbents to these positions are normally required to “obtain and maintain a Top Secret security clearance” among other federal service requirements.
Barely 24 hours after the Hatewatch report broke, Politico, citing “two sources familiar with the situation” reported that the State Department has put the employee on leave following reports that “he has been an active member of a white supremacist group for more than five years.”
We’re waiting to see what the State Department will do with this case following the reported leave.  A 2017 article on federal employees’ rights notes that “At a minimum, before taking an adverse action like termination, an agency must issue a notice to the employee identifying the charge(s) against them. The employee has the right to see the evidence against them and the right to reply to the charge(s), as well as the right to have counsel represent them.”
Unlike political appointees who can be fired at anytime, career federal employees are generally afforded workplace protection. Recent media reports also show the fallout from recent high profile terminations. In one case, former Special Agent Peter Strzok firing resulted in a complaint alleging violations of Strzok’s First Amendment and due process rights, as well as a violation of the Privacy Act concerning the release of the text messages. Similarly, on August 8, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe also filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over his demotion and dismissal from the FBI. The complaint alleges that the Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray’s actions violated both McCabe’s First Amendment and due process rights.  See the common thread there? We expect both court cases will be lengthy and instructive.
As an aside, Mick “it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker” Mulvaney has a grand new idea on how to get rid of federal employees; which should give people some pause whether they’re with Agriculture or anywhere else in the federal government.

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Dept of Commerce’s Chelsea Decaminada Injured in Sri Lanka Bombing Has Died

 

A  U.S.  Government employee seriously injured in the terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday died on May 4 as a result of injuries she suffered during the attacks.  Chelsea Decaminada worked as an international program specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce and was on assignment in Sri Lanka. She previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer in  in Tanzania. She graduated from Duke University in 2015. RIP Chelsea Decaminada.

Trump Shutdown Day #21: Across America, Federal Hostages Are Hurting

Posted: 1:06 am EST

Today marks the 21st day of the Trump Shutdown, making it exactly as long as the 1995 Gingrich Shutdown, a 21-day shutdown which was apparently caused  by this pettiness: “Gingrich confessed he’d forced the closing of the federal government partly because Bill Clinton had relegated him to a rear cabin aboard Air Force One on the way home from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Jerusalem.”

Then as now, the federal government furloughed 800,000 workers.

By Saturday, this sh*tshow, which somebody publicly said he is proud to own, will be the longest shutdown in history. Congress can do its duty as an equal branch of our government and pass a bill over the president’s objections and re-open the government. This requires a two-thirds vote in the House and in the Senate. A two-thirds supermajority in the Senate is 67 out of 100 senators, and  two-thirds supermajority in the House is 290 out of 435 representatives. The 116th Congress is now a 47 Democrat, 53 GOP split  in the Senate, while the House is 235 Democrat, 199 GOP. See the challenge there? But there is apparently already a bill to reopen the government, why won’t they call it on the floor for a vote? Is the leadership afraid that it will pass both houses, and the president would look worse when he vetoes it?

James Fallows writes: “On December 18, Mitch McConnell’s GOP-run Senate passed, on a unanimous voice vote, a “clean” funding measure, to keep the government open and postpone funding fights about “the wall.” They did so with guidance from the White House that Donald Trump would go along. Then the right-wing mocking began; then immediate funding for the wall became an “emergency”; then Trump preferred a shutdown to appearing to “lose.” Mitch McConnell’s GOP of course switched right along with him—and against the measure all of its members had supported just days ago. One man’s insecurity, and his party’s compliance, are disrupting millions of lives.”

Well, maybe some of these folks really believed that a 30-foot wall works over a 35-foot ladder or 30-feet tunnel or maybe all their spinal bones are just made of jello. The larger public may soon start to realize that these elected representatives do not much care for 800,000 of their fellow Americans and their families. Or care much for their fellow citizens and their families who rely on the people and services that make our government work. We’ve taken for granted that the checks and balances in our system works … but take a look.

As this shutdown continues, we are struck at the high tolerance for people and their families to be put in great hardship, all for a fucking wall that Mexico was supposed to pay.

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OSC’s Hatch Act Guidance: No Advocacy For/Against Impeachment, No #Resist, #ResistTrump Use

 

On November 27, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) — not Robert Mueller’s but the federal agency with authorities to investigate cases related to the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) — issued a new guidance regarding political activity. It says that  its Hatch Act Unit has received several questions regarding whether the following constitute “political activity” for purposes of the Hatch Act:

1. Is strong criticism or praise of an administration’s policies and actions considered political activity?

Criticism or praise that is directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group is political activity. Absent evidence that the criticism or praise is so directed, criticism or praise of an administration’s policies and actions is not considered political activity. Whether a particular statement constitutes political activity depends upon the facts and circumstances.

Consider, for example, the administration’s recent decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. An employee who strongly criticizes or praises that decision during a workplace discussion with a colleague in the days immediately following the decision is less likely to be engaging in political activity than one making those same statements in the run-up to the next presidential election—when the decision will likely have been out of the news for several years—to a colleague that the employee knows has strong feelings about
the subject.

Read more here.

2. Is advocating for or against impeachment of a candidate for federal office considered political activity?

Yes. Read more here.

3. Is activity related to “the Resistance” considered political activity?

To the extent that the statement relates to resistance to President Donald J. Trump, usage of the terms “resistance,” “#resist,” and derivatives thereof is political activity. We understand that the “resistance” and “#resist” originally gained prominence shortly after President Trump’s election in 2016 and generally related to efforts to oppose administration policies. However, “resistance,” “#resist,” and similar terms have become inextricably linked with the electoral success (or failure) of the president. During the period when President Trump was not considered by OSC to be a candidate for reelection the terms did not raise any Hatch Act concerns. Now that President Trump is a candidate for reelection, we must presume that the use or display of “resistance,” “#resist,” “#resistTrump,” and similar statements is political activity unless the facts and circumstances indicate otherwise.

Note that this presumption is only relevant to employee conduct that takes place on duty, in the workplace, while wearing an agency uniform or insignia, or while invoking any official authority or influence. Provided that they comply with the Hatch Act’s restrictions, employees are free to engage in political activity while off-duty and away from the federal workplace.

In OSC’s example, if you tweet “I must #resist the temptation to eat another donut from the break room” – you would not/not be engaging in political activity but OSC would presume that “the use or display of the hashtags #resist and #resistTrump, in isolation, is political activity under the Hatch Act.”  Read in full here.

The thing is, Foreign Service folks are considered on duty 24/7, so what does this guidance means in the real world? We’ve asked the OSC; will update if we hear anything back.

You may also call the Hatch Act Unit at 202-804-7002 or send an e-mail to Hatchact@osc.gov  for your Hatch Act-related questions.

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Ex-Federal Employee Hounded by YouKnowWho Gets a GoFundMe For Legal Defense Fund

Posted: 3:50 am ET

 

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