In an April 17 decision, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with an administrative judge that the VA’s decision to remove an employee who claimed to be suffering from PTSD was lawful under its circumstances.
Sean Higgins was suspended and eventually fired from the VA in June 2017 based on charges related to “disruptive behavior and use of profane language.” He subsequently challenged both his suspension and removal with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), claiming he was a victim of whistleblower retaliation and that his PTSD should have been taken into consideration.
Throughout his employment at the VA – which lasted about 10 years – Higgins reported misuse of agency letterhead and improper disposal of biohazardous waste. According to the background laid out by the appellate court, this garnered him a reputation as a whistleblower at work. However, it was incidents involving the use of profanity to address coworkers and making threatening statements that led to his dismissal, the VA argued.
Higgins complained to the appeals court that the administrative judge incorrectly downplayed medical evidence related to his PTSD diagnosis when his removal and suspension were upheld. The appeals court agreed that the judge’s analysis of the medical evidence was brief and not very detailed, but ultimately found that it wasn’t made in error.
Ultimately, the appeals court wrote in its decision, the administrative judge had considered PTSD as a mitigating factor but balanced it with the risk and seriousness of the reasons for his suspension and removal.
It agreed with the administrative judge that “removal was a reasonable and appropriate penalty in view of the VAMC’s ‘top priority’ to keep its employees safe,” and inserted the following quotation from the lower court’s decision: “’especially in light of the plague of workplace violence which afflicts our nation.’”
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