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Lentz v. Merit Systems Protection Board

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

December 12, 2017

CHASE M. LENTZ, Petitioner
v.
MERIT SYSTEMS PROTECTION BOARD, Respondent

         Petition for review of the Merit Systems Protection Board in No. SF-4324-15-0364-I-1.

          Chase M. Lentz, Fresno, CA, pro se.

          Calvin M. Morrow, Office of the General Counsel, Merit Systems Protection Board, Washington, DC, for respondent. Also represented by Bryan G. Polisuk, Katherine M. Smith.

          Before Newman, Dyk, and Hughes, Circuit Judges.

          Newman, Circuit Judge.

         Chase M. Lentz appeals the decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB or "Board"), holding that his resignation from federal employment was a voluntary act and not a constructive discharge. We vacate the Board's decision, as based on incorrect evidentiary procedures including the inappropriate application of collateral estoppel. We remand to the MSPB for redetermination of the issue of constructive discharge.

         Background

         Mr. Lentz entered federal service in 2002, and at the times here relevant was employed as a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior (the "Agency") in California. Mr. Lentz had no disciplinary record until May 15, 2014, when his supervisor issued a letter of reprimand for "acting outside the scope of his authority" and "conduct unbecoming." MSPB Appx 34. These charges were based on his authorization to permit goat grazing on certain public lands, without the prior approval of his supervisors. Id. On November 13, 2014 Mr. Lentz's supervisor issued a letter proposing a fourteen-day suspension for various infractions, citing his management of interns, his behavior toward his supervisors, and his interaction with outside entities. Id. at 34-35. Soon after receiving this letter, Mr. Lentz went on medical leave. The proposed fourteen-day suspension was sustained on February 10, 2015, during his medical leave, to commence on February 15, 2015.

         Mr. Lentz resigned on February 13, 2015. His letter of resignation cites harassment and a hostile work environment that aggravated an illness and his veterans disability, and made his work circumstances intolerable. He states, "I had been pushed to the limits of what I could endure and had to take significant amounts of sick leave as a result." Initial Appeal File (IAF), Tab 9 at 29. He states that until the most recent two years (and new supervisors) his performance had consistently been rated "superior." He states that he has filed complaints for discrimination and harassment by his supervisors, including complaints for violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301-4335, and that the letters of reprimand are retaliatory.

         On February 25, 2015, Mr. Lentz filed an appeal with the MSPB, asserting constructive discharge. He stated that the May 2014 letter of reprimand and the November 2014 letter and fourteen-day suspension were retaliatory and discriminatory, leading to his constructive discharge. IAF, Tab 1. He stated that his ensuing illness and medical leave should be viewed as a constructive suspension, and that "the agency coerced my resignation by bringing unjustifiable charges and creating unreasonably difficult working conditions." IAF, Tab 1 at 5. He also alleged discrimination on the basis of his status as a disabled veteran, and retaliation for having previously filed a complaint for violation of USERRA. In separate appeals to the MSPB, not here at issue, he alleged that the Agency actions were in retaliation for protected whistleblower activity.

         The MSPB's Administrative Judge (AJ), at the Western Regional Office, bifurcated the February 25, 2015 appeal into two separate cases. The first case (Lentz I)[1]designated the appeal as a claim for involuntary resignation under 5 U.S.C. Chapter 75. The second case (Lentz II)[2] designated the appeal as a complaint under USERRA. The AJ dismissed Lentz I for lack of jurisdiction, and the AJ subsequently held that Mr. Lentz was collaterally estopped from raising in Lentz II the evidence and issues that the AJ had assigned to Lentz I. Mr. Lentz states that by separating the several factual aspects and concerns that contributed to his involuntary resignation, their combined weight was never considered, distorting the MSPB's review.

         The Lentz I proceeding

         The first proceeding was designated by the AJ as a dismissal action under Chapter 75, and was limited by the AJ to the issue of constructive discharge based on Mr. Lentz's assertions that the Agency "brought unjustifiable charges in support of its reprimand and 14-day suspension, " "committed prohibited personnel practices by using his protected disclosures of information as a basis for discipline, " and "misrepresented, exaggerated and omitted evidence." MSPB Appx 39-40.

         The Agency moved to dismiss the Lentz I proceeding for "lack of jurisdiction." The AJ granted the motion without the requested hearing, stating that "[Mr. Lentz] has failed to nonfrivolously allege he was subjected to a discriminatory/retaliatory hostile work environment so coercive in nature that he had no choice but to resign." MSPB Appx 51. ...


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