Today, the Department of Justice celebrates the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301, et seq. (USERRA). USERRA protects the civilian employment and reemployment rights of members of a uniformed service by prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of an individual’s past, present, or future military obligations. USERRA also provides reemployment rights to eligible servicemembers upon their return from uniformed service or training. USERRA is not the first act designed to protect the civilian worklife of our servicemembers and veterans – it traces its history to the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (Pub. L. 76-783) – but it represents a bipartisan effort by lawmakers to adapt the available protections in an era when our nation relies more heavily on our Reserve and Guard components. Since September 11, 2001, the National Guard and Reserve have performed almost one million activations of guard members and reservists from their civilian lives to active duty military service in support of the global war on terror. Over 38,000 reservists and guard members are on active duty at this moment, protecting the liberties and freedoms that we enjoy.
In addition to being the 25th anniversary of the enactment of USERRA, it is the 15th anniversary of the Department of Justice’s enforcement of the statute. On October 28, 2004, Christy Wiegand, an Assistant United Stated States Attorney from the Western District of Pennsylvania, filed the very first complaint by the Department of Justice in the case of McLaughlin v. Newark Paperboard Products, (04-CV-01648). Since then the Department has marshalled the efforts of the attorneys and staff of the Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section and United States Attorneys’ offices nationwide to provide direct legal support to our nation’s servicemembers and veterans. The Department has filed 107 USERRA lawsuits and favorably resolved 195 USERRA complaints, either through consent decrees obtained in those suits or through facilitated private settlements. In just the last two years, the Department has filed eight complaints in federal district courts around the country enforcing the USERRA rights of military service members. During that same period, the Department has negotiated settlements resolving USERRA complaints filed in court and facilitated private settlement agreements on behalf of USERRA claimants. The monetary recoveries secured by the Department between 2017 and 2019 are in excess of $750,000.
The Employment Litigation Section has a longer history of using litigation to enforce and expand USERRA’s protections. In 2006, the Department filed the very first USERRA class action case in federal court in Woodall, McMahon and Manso, et al., v. American Airlines, Inc., seeking lost vacation and sick leave benefits for pilots who had been called away to active duty military service.
Just this year, on April 1, 2019, the Department of Justice completed a settlement on behalf of Captain Rebecca Cruz, a member of the Arizona Air National Guard, resolving her USERRA claim against the City of Glendale, Arizona.
Our complaint in that matter alleged that the City terminated Captain Cruz’s employment because she requested a military leave of absence. In resolution of her USERRA claim, Glendale agreed to compensate Captain Cruz for both lost wages and benefits and to provide pension credits to her with the Arizona State Pension Plan.
The Department also has actively participated as amicus curiae in appeals involving the important rights of servicemembers, including the Supreme Court case of Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Second Circuit appeal in Serrichio v. Wachovia Securities, and the First Circuit appeal in Rivera-Melendez v. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, LLC. The Department also intervened and participated as amicus curiae on appeal to defend USERRA’s constitutionality and applicability in Clark v. Virginia Dept. of State Police, No. 151857 (Vir. S. Ct. 2016), Weaver v. Madison City Bd. of Educ., No. 13-14624 (11th Cir.), filed in 2014, and Ramirez v. State of New Mexico Youth and Family Services, No. S-1-SC-34613 (N.M. S. Ct.), filed in 2014. On June 27, 2019, the Department filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the case of Mueller v. City of Joliet, 18-3609. The brief was filed in support of an Illinois National Guard member and City of Joliet Police Sergeant, David Mueller, who alleged that the City of Joliet violated his USERRA protections by denying him the opportunity to accrue employment benefits while he was deployed as part of a state counter-drug operation. The district court dismissed his claim and agreed with the defendants that USERRA does not protect a servicemember called to duty in a state counter-drug operation because it considered this to be state, not federal, National Guard service. The Department of Justice urged overturning the district court’s opinion because the servicemember’s role in the counter-drug task force constituted “full-time National Guard duty” as defined in Title 32, and thus it qualified as a “uniformed service” within the meaning of USERRA, and entitled him to USERRA’s employment protections.
In 2015, the Department created the Servicemember’s and Veterans Initiative in order to expand our enforcement, training and outreach efforts. Additional information about USERRA can be found on the Justice Department’s websites at www.justice.gov/crt-military/employment-rights-userra and www.justice.gov/servicemembers. If you have a USERRA complaint, or know of someone who does, please visit www.justice.gov/servicemembers where the Department has created a complaint form in order to directly respond to USERRA violations. The Justice Department gives high priority to the enforcement of servicemembers’ rights under USERRA and we celebrate the opportunity to continue, as we have for the last fifteen years, to secure the employment rights of our servicemembers who make continual sacrifices to secure the freedoms that we all enjoy.