Recent USERRA case

By Dennis McCarthy

Since 2001, over 800,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves have been called to active duty – some more than once.  Most served overseas, some at bases and stations in the U.S.  Some were called “involuntarily” and some volunteered for active duty assignments.

The one fact that ties all of these men and women together is that, if they were employed at the time the left for military duty, they were covered by a Federal law known as the Uniformed Servicemembers Employment and Re-employment Rights Act or USERRA.  This act provides extremely broad protections for service members, and applies with equal force to employers of all types and in all sectors of the economy.

In my experience as a military commander and senior Defense Department official, the vast majority of U. S. employers complied fully with USERRA.  Many employers have gone well above and beyond the law’s requirements.  But a few employers – whether by ignorance or design – have been shown to violate USERRA.  Doing so subjects them to investigation by the Department of Labor, enforcement action by the Department of Justice, or a private civil lawsuit in Federal Court.

On our news page, we report on a recent case from the state of Washington in which a social services agency connected with the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle. In that case a Federal jury awarded a member of the National Guard $485,000 in damages.  The Federal judge in the case then awarded an additional $457,000 in fees and costs.

The size of the verdict makes me think the facts were egregious.  Overall, however, this case demonstrates the strength of the public policy represented by USERRA to protect our men and women in uniform from employment discrimination.  The case also demonstrates the need for employers of all sizes and types to understand their responsibilities under USERRA.