Court Remands Case for Review of Suggestion Award

In Cooley v. United States, No. 06-284C (May 25, 2007), the U.S. Court of Federal Claims remanded a case that alleged the Social Security Administration (SSA) breached an implied-in-fact contract when it adopted suggestions made through the agency's Employee Suggestion Program (ESP) without giving an appropriate award. The government moved to dismiss Cooley's complaint that he was entitled to an award of $32,819 which had been rejected by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The court granted plaintiff's cross-motion, vacated OPM's rejection of the award, and granted plaintiff's motion to remand the case to SSA for further proceedings.

In 2004, the SSA Commissioner forwarded to OPM for its approval a recommendation that Cooley receive an award of $32,819 for his suggestion, noting that a total of $3,956,919.46 in tangible and intangible savings was being realized as a result of his suggestions. In 2005, the OPM director declined to accept the award, finding that Cooley had already received a total award of $24,450 for this suggestion in August 2001 and that the amounts already awarded generally fell within the guidelines for the recalculated savings.

The court disagreed, first finding that it had jurisdiction based on an implied-in-fact contract between plaintiff and the U.S. when the agency adopted the employee's suggestion. "It is undisputed that SSA adopted three of the suggestions that Mr. Cooley made and that SSA endeavored to provide awards to Mr. Cooley for one or more of those suggestions." The court held that while SSA adopted three separate suggestions by plaintiff, "both SSA and OPM made their decisions about awards for his suggestions on the mistaken premise that only one suggestion was involved rather than three."

Because each of plaintiff's suggestions should have been considered independently, the court granted plaintiff's motion to remand the case to SSA. On remand, SSA was required to consider the three suggestions as separate suggestions and to "determine the amount of cash awards, if any, to which he is entitled for each suggestion." In addition, SSA was required to "refer to OPM for approval any award exceeding $10,000." "For any awards approved by SSA and approved by OPM that exceed $25,000, OPM shall seek final approval from the President." SSA was given 180 days to complete its determination while further proceedings before the court were stayed.

This article also appears in FEDweek ( www.fedweek.com), a weekly newsletter for federal employees.