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November 06, 2008
Do Federal Courts Have Jurisdiction Over All USERRA Claims?

A Texas state employee called to active duty sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), claiming he was suspended and fired because of his military service. The 5th Circuit analyzed whether federal courts can hear USERRA claims brought by an individual against a state employer.

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What happened. The employee was the lead dentist at the Richmond State School (RSS), a state-run residence for physically and mentally disabled individuals. He was called to active duty as a U.S. Navy Reserve member. While he was away, a review of the dental clinic concluded that he had inadequately performed his work. When the dentist returned, his supervisor suspended him with pay pending an investigation of his poor standard of dental care.

The dentist sued his supervisor individually and as a state official, alleging violations of USERRA and his due process rights. While the case was pending, another investigation revealed that the dentist had not properly treated his patients, and he was fired. A federal district court ruled for the supervisor, reasoning that it had jurisdiction over the USERRA claim, that the dentist's suspension and termination didn't result from his service, and that the supervisor didn't violate the dentist's due process rights. The dentist appealed to the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

What the court said. Disagreeing with the district court, the 5th Circuit held that a USERRA claim brought by an individual against a state employer could not be brought in federal court. Looking at the applicable USERRA language—"the action may be brought in a State court"—the judges ruled that Congress didn't intend for such claims to be heard in federal courts. By contrast, other USERRA sections explicitly allow federal courts to hear claims against a private employer or those brought by the federal government against a private or state employer. Because the 5th Circuit determined that it didn't have jurisdiction, it didn't decide whether the dentist's service led to his suspension and termination.

The 5th Circuit also concluded that the dentist received adequate due process before his suspension. First, Texas' interest in safeguarding RSS residents' health outweighed his interest in his job. Second, because the supervisor learned of the dentist's incompetence and an investigation confirmed his poor work, the court found that the adverse action was not "baseless and unwarranted." McIntosh v. Partridge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, No. 07-20440 (8/8/08).

Point to remember: As more reserve and National Guard members are called to military service, employers must be aware of—and adhere to—USERRA.

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