MSPB Precedential Case: The Statutory Definition of a “Widow”

Posted: 2:14 am ET
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This is a precedential case worth noting via the U.S. Merit Service Protection Board:

Petitioner: Amanda E. Becker
Respondent: Office of Personnel Management Tribunal: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Case Number: 2016-1365
MSPB Docket No. CH-0831-15-0280-I-1
Issuance Date: April 7, 2017

Case Report – April 14, 2017

The appellant filed an application with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) seeking survivor benefits under the Federal Employees’ Retirement System (FERS) based on the Federal service of her late husband. OPM denied her application on the basis of its finding that she did not meet the statutory definition of a “widow” who may receive such benefits, which is defined at 5 U.S.C. § 8441(1) as the surviving wife of an employee who was married to the employee for at least 9 months immediately before his death, or who is the mother of children by that marriage. The appellant appealed OPM’s decision, and the administrative judge affirmed. During the proceedings, the administrative judge denied the appellant’s request for discovery regarding instances in which OPM may have waived the 9-month requirement and regarding whether OPM provided her late husband notice regarding the 9-month requirement. The appellant appealed the decision to the court, arguing that 5 U.S.C. § 8441(1) was unconstitutional and that the administrative judge improperly denied her discovery requests.

Holdings:

(1) The court found that 5 U.S.C. § 8441(1) does not violate the Constitution because there is a rational basis for Congress to use an imprecise set of criteria as a proxy to ensure that the marriage was entered into for reasons other than the desire to shortly acquire benefits.

(2) The court found that the administrative judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the appellant’s discovery requests because: (a) she had no reasonable belief that OPM has previously waived the 9-month requirement and, even if OPM had previously done so, it would still be required to follow the statutory requirements when reviewing the appellant’s application; and (b) there was no dispute that the appellant’s late husband submitted all of the election forms to ensure that she received survivor benefits and, even if he was unfamiliar with the statutory requirements contained in the election forms he signed, such fact would not provide a basis for waiving the requirements.

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Rainey v. State Department: “Right-to-Disobey” (Precedential Decision)

Posted: 1:49 am EDT
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The following is a decision from the Merit Systems Protection Board, and considered a precedential decision,  one that can be cited as authoritative going forward.

Appellant: Timothy Allen Rainey
Agency: Department of State
Decision Number: 2015 MSPB 49
MSPB Docket No.: DC-1221-14-0898-W-1 Issuance
Date: August 6, 2015
Appeal Type: Individual Right of Action Action
Type: Retaliation

Whistleblower Protection Act Jurisdiction

The appellant filed an Individual Right of Action appeal alleging 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 and training certification procedures. The administrative judge dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, finding that the appellant’s claim of retaliation based on refusal to violate acquisition regulations and training procedures did not amount to a nonfrivolous allegation that he refused to obey an order that would require him to violate a law.

Holding: The Board affirmed the initial decision.

1. While employees are protected from whistleblower retaliation for refusing to obey an order that would require a violation of the law under 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(9)(D), the Supreme Court made clear in Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean,135 S. Ct. 913 (2015) that this protection does not extend to violations of an agency regulation or policy.

The MSPB assumed the employee appeals function of the Civil Service Commission and was given responsibilities to perform merit systems studies and to review the significant actions of OPM. State Department’s civil servants have appeals rights in the MSPB.  The employee also has a right to request review of the final decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Text of full ruling is here – 2015 MSPB 49 (pdf).

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