Police Trainer Can’t Get Same Federal Benefits as Officers

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By Hassan A. Kanu

Sept. 20 — An instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia isn’t eligible for the same enhanced retirement benefits that federal law enforcement officers and firefighters get, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled ( Fitzgerald v. DHS , Fed. Cir., No. 2015-3154, 9/20/16 ).

Federal law enforcement officers can retire with an annuity at an earlier age and based on fewer years of service than most other federal employees. A 2007 statute essentially reclassified U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers as law enforcement. It provided those enhanced benefits to CBP officers and certain “supervisory or administrative” employees who had served as CBP officers for at least three years.

Susan Fitzgerald, a former customs inspector, sued the Department of Homeland Security challenging the Office of Personnel Management’s interpretation of which workers qualify as a “supervisory or administrative” employee under the statute. Fitzgerald argued that OPM’s interpretation—under which her particular current position isn’t eligible for the enhanced benefits—contradicts the purpose of the law. The court disagreed.

“Congress likely intended to leave a gap as to the meaning of a ‘supervisory or administrative position in [DHS]' that OPM would fill through regulations,” and the regulations are valid because they’re not unreasonable interpretations of the statutory language, Judge Alvin Schall wrote in his Sept. 20 decision.

Consistent Policy-Making Approach

The CBP became a component of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The law extending law enforcement benefits to CBP officers was enacted to attract and retain more workers for the agency.

The court noted that the part of the statute targeted at former CBP officers who go on to become administrators or supervisors doesn’t actually define what constitutes such a position. Fitzgerald argued that this means that a worker with three previous years of service at CBP who then transfers to any administrative or supervisory position at the DHS is eligible for the enhanced benefits. The court disagreed.

The court said it accepted the government’s argument that “Congress’s reliance on OPM to fill the gaps as to the meaning of the term ‘supervisory or administrative’ position is consistent with its approach to retirement benefits for other special groups.” Given OPM’s rulemaking authority here, courts must defer to the agency as long as its regulations aren’t an unreasonable interpretation of the statute, Schall said.

The “regulations do not conflict with the statute; instead, they merely cabin it by restricting entitlement to CBPO status to employees in certain CBPO-related positions,” the court wrote. This is reasonable because “all supervisory and administrative positions in DHS are not created equal,” and “second, the restriction encourages career service as a CBPO.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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