Federal employees share many similarities with their privately employed counterparts. However, when a privately employed person is injured or wrongfully terminated, they can sue their employer. When the government is your employer, the question often arises: Can a federal employee sue their employer?
The answer is yes, with some caveats. Because the federal government has sovereign immunity, federal employees cannot file lawsuits against it unless the government waives this immunity. Therefore, if a federal employee wants to sue the federal government, they can do so only in limited circumstances.
In these limited circumstances, the exact methods for suing the government may not be actual lawsuits, at least at first. Federal employees have to go through certain administrative procedures before they can file a lawsuit in federal court, and thankfully many times a complaint can be resolved during these administrative procedures.
What Can a Federal Employee Sue the Federal Government For?
Wrongful termination and workplace discrimination are the most common lawsuits employees bring against their employers. Federal employees can sue the federal government for either of these reasons, though the process is different than with a private employer.
While private sector employees may bring lawsuits against employers in civil court, federal employees must first file a claim with an independent review body rather than the court system. The initial claim sets in motion the administrative process federal employees must exhaust before they can sue the federal government. Once the employee receives a final decision from the reviewing agency, they may file a lawsuit in federal court.
When Can a Federal Employee Sue Their Employer?
A federal employee can sue the federal government for discrimination, harassment, non-selection, demotion, wrongful termination, and for several other bases. For example, federal employee may have a claim to sue their federal agency if the employee
- Faced discrimination or harassment based on their race, sex, or other protected characteristic;
- Was fired or experienced discrimination because the employee “blew the whistle” on misconduct, abuse of authority, or illegal activity; or
- Had their employment terminated for an unfair or arbitrary reason which would not promote the efficiency of the service.
These are only a few of the common claims a federal employee may have to sue their employer. If you believe you were wrongfully terminated or suffered harassment at your federal workplace, you should contact a federal employment lawyer who can advise you of your rights and possible avenues of recovery.
Suing a Federal Employer for Workplace Discrimination
There are several laws, enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that protect federal employees against workplace discrimination and harassment.
These laws include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, among others. Title VII is perhaps the most expansive, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
Federal employees protected by these laws must go through a different complaint process compared to private sector employees.
First, federal employees must speak with the equal employment opportunity counselor at the agency where the employee works. Most employees know this department as their EEO office, although some agencies do use varying acronyms, such as the Office of Resolution Management (ORM) at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Before filing a formal complaint, the employee must participate in either counseling or in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), usually mediation. If the employee can’t reach a resolution, they may then file a formal complaint with their federal agency.
Unless the agency dismisses the complaint, they will then investigate the claims of discrimination and issue a Report of Investigation (ROI), along with a notice of right to request a hearing before an administrative judge (AJ) of the EEOC or a final agency decision.
After hearing the case, the AJ submits an initial decision to the agency. The agency then issues a final decision indicating whether it agrees with the AJ’s conclusion and will implement the order.
After receiving the agency’s final decision, an employee can file a lawsuit in federal civil court. Properly exhausting administrative remedies is necessary for obtaining review by a federal court. Hiring a federal employment lawyer to guide you through the process will ensure that you do not miss any deadlines and that your case is as strong as possible.
Suing a Federal Employer for Wrongful Termination
Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires someone for any reason prohibited by the law. Firing an employee based on discrimination or in retaliation for something the employee did are examples of wrongful termination. Wrongful termination can also occur when employees are forced out on trumped up charges or coerced to resign.
Filing a Wrongful Termination Claim
With the exception of Title 38 VA employees and certain others, wrongful termination claims are usually filed with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), though employees may file these claims through the EEO process or union grievance as well.
Employees may file a claim only with one of these options, generally, the one you elect first; discussing these options with a federal employment attorney will help you determine which is best for your situation.
Appealing Wrongful Termination to the MSPB
After filing an appeal with the MSPB, the employee engages in the discovery process with the agency, during which time each side gathers information to support their case.
Information gathering may take the form of interrogatories, requests for admission, requests for the production of documents, or depositions. An experienced federal employment lawyer will be familiar with this process and can help you gather the right evidence during the discovery process.
After discovery, the parties attend a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Each side presents evidence and testimony that supports their case. Keep in mind that during this entire process, your attorney can negotiate with the other side to attempt to reach a settlement. If you and your employer can reach an agreement, it may be possible to avoid a hearing altogether.
After the hearing, the ALJ will review the evidence and issue a decision. If you “win” at the hearing, the ALJ may award relief including back pay, reinstatement, and attorney fees. Similar to a claim with the EEOC, if the ALJ’s final decision is not in your favor, you have the option to file a lawsuit in federal court.
Can Federal Employees Sue the Government for Personal Injury?
Federal employees cannot sue the government if they are injured because of a government agency’s negligence. While the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) waives the government’s sovereign immunity lawsuits for injuries caused by federal agencies or employees, the FTCA does not apply to federal employees.
Instead, federal employees receive benefits under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA). Federal courts have held that FECA is the exclusive remedy for federal employees over all other federal tort liability statutes, including the FTCA.
Need to Sue Your Federal Employer?
The Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, PLLC, helps federal employees with a variety of federal employment issues. We’ve helped hundreds of clients with EEOC and MSPB claims, federal retirement benefits claims, and more.