Court faults USPS in firing of decorated Afghan war veteran

Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 7:49 PM

Uncle Sam can be one generous dude.

He allows workers, in the public and private sectors, to be away from their jobs for five years without losing their gigs, if they are on temporary military duty.

On top of that, some assignments - fighting in a war is one - don't count toward the five years. That means some employees who also are in the military could be missing in action from their civilian jobs for a really long time and not be fired.

At least in theory.

The U.S. Postal Service apparently wasn't up to speed on Sam's generous spirit, as defined by federal law, when it fired Richard Erickson, a decorated sergeant major in the Army's Special Forces, in April 2000.

Now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has overturned a Merit Systems Protection Board ruling in favor of USPS that Erickson, an Afghanistan war veteran, had abandoned the post office for military service.

The decision appears to pave the way for Erickson to get his job back, though the Postal Service hasn't surrendered yet. Erickson's attorney says the case could have broad implications for thousands of vets. The court sent the case back to MSPB for further action.

The lawyer, Mathew B. Tully, said he has had preliminary discussions about settling the case with the Postal Service. At the same time, he predicts that in light of the court ruling, the MSPB will tell USPS to give Erickson his job back.

"I think MSPB is handcuffed," said Tully, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the New York National Guard. "I think the only thing they can do is order his back pay and reinstatement from the day he got fired."

Erickson could be eligible for 11 years of back pay and compensation for benefits. With legal fees added, Tully figures USPS might have to dish out more than $1 million.

The Postal Service doesn't agree.

"We will engage Mr. Erickson at MSPB," said Gerald McKiernan, a USPS spokesman. "Based on two previous MSPB decisions and a federal circuit court decision, we believe we acted properly at the time." There are no immediate plans to rehire Erickson, he added.

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