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August 04, 2005
How Far Do an Employee's USERRA Rights Go?

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.

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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.

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