Proving Retirement Was Involuntary

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) recently held in a split decision that Danny Vaughan was permitted the opportunity to prove that his retirement from the Department of Agriculture was involuntary. In Vaughan v. Department of Agriculture, 2011 MSPB 61 (June 13, 2011), Vaughan appealed an involuntary disability retirement, claiming that he was coerced into retirement because the agency's discriminatory conduct caused him to become disabled.

Vaughan initiated his appeal with the MSPB as an appeal from what he claimed to be an involuntary disability retirement, and also as an appeal of the agency's final agency decision (FAD) concerning an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint he had filed. Vaughan had alleged that the agency discriminated against him on the basis of disability. The case went before an administrative judge (AJ), who dismissed the appeal, claiming that Vaughan had previously raised the same claims in a prior case. He had raised involuntary disability retirement in a previous whistleblower case before the MSPB. Citing the doctrine of "collateral estoppel," the AJ held that Vaughan was barred from "relitigating" the voluntariness of the disability retirement.

The doctrine of collateral estoppel applies to a claim when: 1. An issue is identical to that involved in a prior action; 2. The issue was actually litigated in the prior action; 3. The determination on the issue in the prior action was necessary to the resulting judgment; 4. The party against whom issue preclusion (i.e., prevention from bringing the same issue again for litigation) is sought had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action, either as a party to the earlier action or as one whose interests were otherwise fully represented in that action. McNeil v. Department of Defense, 100 MSPR 146, ¶15 (2005).

In reversing the decision of the AJ, the Board held that collateral estoppel was not met in this case because Vaughan did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate his involuntary disability retirement claim. The Board articulated that when deciding on the voluntariness of disability retirement, in order to find that the retirement was involuntary: 1. the appellant must make a nonfrivolous allegation that, if proven, would show that a reasonable accommodation was available between the time that the appellant's medical condition arose and the date of his separation that would have allowed him to continue his employment; 2. the appellant communicated to the agency his desire to continue working but that his medical limitations required a modification of his working conditions or duties; and 3. the agency failed to provide the appellant that accommodation.

However, the Board further held that in unusual cases, the legal standard should be broadened to allow the appellant to prove his case of involuntary disability retirement. Moreover, it held that Vaughan's case is one of these unusual cases. The difference maker in Vaughan's case is that he alleged that he was subjected to a hostile work environment at the agency which exacerbated the medical conditions underlying his disability retirement. Thus, the Board found that he was entitled to a hearing on the issue of whether his disability retirement was involuntary. This case is important for federal employees as it allows greater review for employees who believe that the agency has directly caused or exacerbated the medical conditions which have led to their seeking disability retirement.