Court limits appeal rights for ‘sensitive’ federal jobs

August 21, 2013

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the Merit Systems Protection Board has no standing to review the Defense Department’s security determinations, drawing criticism from labor groups and whistleblower-protection advocates concerned about due process for the agency’s employees.

In a 7-3 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the government’s authority to designate certain jobs as “noncritical sensitive,” even when the positions do not allow access to classified information.

Critics have raised concerns that the ruling could allow supervisors to punish employees with impunity by classifying their positions as “noncritical sensitive” and then declaring the workers unfit for their jobs.

“The court created a ‘sensitive jobs loophole’ without citing any direct legal authority and openly backed a proposed administration rule to declare virtually any job as national-security sensitive,” the Government Accountability Project said in a statement.

The Office of Personnel Management brought the case to the appeals court, challenging the MSPB’s claim that it could review personnel actions against two low-level Defense Department workers because their jobs did not require access to classified information.

The employees in the case were accounting technician Rhonda Conyers, who was suspended indefinitely, and commissary worker Devon Northover, who was demoted.

The majority in Tuesday’s decision wrote that the review board focused too narrowly on access to classified information while ignoring “the impact employees without security clearances, but in sensitive positions, can have.” The judges said a commissary worker could tip off the enemy to a deployment after noticing a surge in inventory.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the two employees, said in a statement Tuesday that it will review the court’s decision and that it expects to seek a Supreme Court review.

AFGE president J. David Cox said the court “dismissed our appeal and with it the due process rights of tens of thousands of current and future federal workers.”

“Due process rights are the very foundation of our civil service system,” Cox added. “That system itself has been undermined by the court today, if this ruling is allowed to stand.”

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed or email josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | August 20, 2013