shaw bransford & roth case law update

D.C. District Court Vacates VA Secretary Decision on Bargaining for Overtime Procedures

In November 2012, the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas mandated overtime for all Title 38 registered nurses after suffering through a staffing shortage that saw the number of registered nurses drop twenty-four percent.

In December 2012, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union of the affected nurses, attempted to bargain with the Medical Center regarding the implementation of mandatory overtime. The Nurse Executive of the Medical Center, however, declined to bargain under the auspices of Title 38’s prohibition on bargaining on issues that “involve direct patient care and competency matters.” The union responded, asserting that it was exercising its right to “negotiate the procedures Management [would] use in implementing mandatory overtime for Nurses and to negotiate the appropriate arrangements for employees who will be adversely affected.” The union attached eleven “proposals for negotiation” to the demand. A week later, the union submitted a third demand to bargain, asserting again the propriety of bargaining regarding mandatory overtime procedures and arrangements, and emphasizing to the Nurse Executive that it was not seeking to “interfere with the Agency’s right” to implement the mandatory overtime.

The sides met, and management agreed to all but one of the union’s proposals, but that agreement was not memorialized in writing, and management “continued to move forward” with mandatory overtime. The Union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the FLRA, and the FLRA issued a complaint and notice of hearing, alleging that the Medical Center’s “refusal to bargain on December 11 over the Union’s various proposals constituted an unfair labor practice under 5 U.S.C. § 7116(a)(1) and (a)(5).” The Medical Center sought a determination from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs as to whether section § 7422 of Title 38 excluded the matter from the VA’s obligation to bargain with the union. In January 2014, the Secretary published a decision that relied exclusively on a “decision document” approved in 2010 by the VA. The document, the Secretary found, established that if a matter fell within a § 7422 exclusion, demands to bargain about procedures related to that matter were also excluded. Because mandatory overtime requirements are excluded from collective bargaining under § 7422 as being related to “direct patient care,” the Secretary decided that the union’s demands were excluded as well. The FLRA then dismissed the unfair labor practice charge, citing a lack of jurisdiction. The union responded by bringing suit against the Secretary under 5 U.S.C. § 706, alleging that the Secretary’s decision exceeded statutory authority and was arbitrary and capricious. On September 8, 2015, in a memorandum opinion, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the union’s motion for summary judgment, vacated the Secretary’s § 7422 decision, and remanded the matter to the Secretary.

Using the two-step framework established by the Supreme Court under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984), to decide the level of deference given to the VA’s interpretation, the district court explained that although Congress had not directly spoken to the issue, it must defer to the agency so long as the agency’s interpretation was “based on a permissible construction of the statute,” which has been reached after the agency engaged in “reasoned decisionmaking.” The district court observed that under Allentown Mack Sales & Serv., Inc. v. NLRB, 522 U.S. 359 374 (1998), reasoned decisionmaking requires that “an agency’s decreed result be within the scope of its lawful authority,” and that “the process by which it reaches that result…be logical and rational.” The district court clarified that it did not require that the agency adopt the “best possible” or “only permissible” interpretation of the statute, and that the interpretation of § 7422 must merely be reasonable.

But the district court found that the Secretary’s § 7422 decision was not based on a reasonable interpretation of the statute, and stated that it could not discern the agency’s interpretive path when the Secretary wrote that the 2010 Decision Document’s preamble established an unequivocal rule that if an issue falls within a § 7422 exclusion, as mandatory overtime requirements do, demands to bargain about procedures that relate to or address the issue must also be excluded. The district court stated: “Fatal to the [Secretary’s Decision’s] analysis, however, is the fact that the categorical rule it purports to draw from the 2010 Decision Document preamble is nowhere to be found in that document.” The expanding sentence (which the Secretary found allowed an exclusion of procedures related to excluded issues) in the cited Decision Document preamble, the district court held, was actually a limitation on exclusions rather than an expansion on them.

Although the district court did not hold that the VA may not, as a matter of law, exclude the Union proposals at issue, it “express[ed] its reservations about overly broad constructions of “direct patient care,” and wrote that “because almost everything a nurse does touches on ‘direct patient care,’ construing that phrase to encompass even matters that are peripheral to that issue (or procedural proposals) risks allowing the exception to swallow the rule.”

For the above stated reasons, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Secretary’s § 7422 Decisino failed to engage in the “reasoned decisionmaking” that was necessary to render its statutory interpretation permissible or reasonable, and declined to defer to the Decision, instead vacating the Decision and remanding the matter to the Acting Secretary.

Read the full case: National Federation of Federal Employees v. McDonald


This case law update was written by Conor D. Dirks, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

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