A Florida defense contractor's employee was called to active military
duty for a year beginning November 1, 2002. When he left, it was his understanding
that he was a manager in the contractor's hazardous materials division.
Just before his discharge the following year, he asked for his old job backa
basic right under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA).
But lots had changed since his departure.
What happened. Charles Coffman joined Del-Jen, which provided base support
services at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida, when the Air Force
chose the contractor in 1997. Hired as a hazardous materials specialist, he
was later promoted to a position called hazardous materials program manager.
However, witnesses later disagreed about whether the job was a bargaining unit
or management position. In the meantime, Coffman left for active duty.
While he was serving, the Air Force appointed Chugach Support Services as its
general support services contractor, with Del-Jen staying on as a subcontractor.
Of the 100 Del-Jen employees interviewed by Chugach, 97 were rehired. Among
them was Coffman, who, while not quite finished with his service requirement,
asked for his old (management) job back. Chugach had no managerial positions
in hazardous materials and gave Coffman a different job, at roughly the same
pay, but not at a managerial level. He continued to demand his old job back
and eventually sued for violation of his USERRA rights. A federal district court
dismissed his charges, and Coffman appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers
Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
What the court said. Appellate judges noted that as Coffman asserted,
USERRA requires reemployment (in the same job) of a returning service person
not only by his or her original employer but also by any "successor in
interest." Was Chugach a successor in interest to Del-Jen? Although USERRA
does not strictly define the term, judges interpreted it to mean a company that
buys or merges with the prior employer. But that hadn't happened between
Chugach and Del-Jen: No assets had been exchanged. So Chugach had fulfilled
its obligation to Coffman under USERRA, and his case was again dismissed. Coffman
v. Chugach Support Services, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit,
No. 04-14382 (6/8/05).
Point to remember: Since the war in Iraq, USERRA is more important than
ever. But the problem here was that Coffman wanted a manager's title, and
his status wasn't clear even before he left for duty. To avoid such claims,
ensure that your employees understand their job titles and descriptions.