ALJ F-5 determination not preclusive in federal Uniformed Services Employment suit says 5th Circuit.

Bradberry v. Jefferson County, Texas No. 12-41040 (5th Cir. October 17, 2013).

This is an employment case where a former deputy sheriff claims he was terminated after returning from his two-week U.S. Army Reserve obligation in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”).  The deputy moved for partial summary judgment on the ground that Jefferson County was collaterally estopped from relitigating facts determined in a state administrative proceeding (F-5 challenge).  The Fifth Circuit stated collateral estoppel does not prevent the County from re-litigating facts in a federal lawsuit.

According to Bradberry, as a result of Hurricane Ike’s imminent landfall on September 13, the Army orally extended his orders and required him to go to Abilene, Texas, and remain there until released. Bradberry was released from duty on September 15. Jefferson County ordered Bradberry to provide documentation about the extension of his military duty. Although Bradberry provided memoranda from his commanding officers, he did not provide the type of documentation the County requested. He was subsequently terminated. Bradberry challenged the listing on his F-5 report (required report to the State of Texas) listing him as being “dishonorably discharged” from the Sheriff’s Department and initiated a statutory administrative proceeding.  Bradberry won at the administrative level and his F-5 was changed. Bradberry’s partial summary judgment asserted the County could not relitigate the ALJ’s determinations noting the County had insufficient evidence to terminate him for doing something against policy and should have listed him as being terminated “at will”. The trial court denied the motion but, by Bradberry’s request, certified the question for an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Two causes of action apply in this case (reemployment and discrimination for service.) The court went through a detailed analysis of each. If you’ve never dealt with this statute, this is a good opinion to become familiar. The court determined that while an ALJ’s determinations can sometimes be preclusive to a federal claim, here the ALJ was only required to determine whether enough evidence existed to allow the F-5 to reflect a dismissal due to misconduct. The court concluded a finding that Bradberry was discharged due to a disagreement about military service is not the equivalent of a finding that the County was motivated by his military status to discharge him. Further the County’s affirmative defenses under the USERRA were never required to be considered by the ALJ and therefore could not be precluded in the federal suit. On a side note, the court noted it retained supplemental federal jurisdiction over the state law claims as well.

If you would like to read this opinion click here