A federal court has refused to dismiss an Army veteran’s lawsuit against his former employer, General Motors Company, under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, rejecting GM’s claim that the vet had waived his right to sue.
In an apparent case of first impression, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia this month allowed Michael Vahey’s USERRA lawsuit against GM to proceed. The automaker unsuccessfully attempted to get the case thrown out by saying Vahey, who in 2005 took military leave of absence from GM, waived his right to sue under USERRA when he signed a severance agreement after his return from active duty in 2009.
Between 1997 and 2005 Vahey worked for GM as an engineer. The company granted Vahey’s request for a military leave of absence with the clear understanding that he would be reemployed after completing his uniformed service. But by the time Vahey was honorably discharged in 2009, the Wilmington, Del. assembly plant where he had worked was scheduled for closure. While employees at the Wilmington plant were offered other opportunities at other plants throughout his enlistment, GM did not offer these opportunities to Vahey, telling him he would be terminated in a matter of days and offering him only a take-it-or-leave it severance package of six months’ pay. Additionally, Vahey worked for General Motor’s central office, and would have likely been transferred in 2006 after the Wilmington, DE product launch. Faced with the dire prospect of having no income after four years of service to his country, Vahey accepted the offer. The severance was conditioned on an express waiver of Vahey’s rights under numerous statutes, but USERRA was not one of them.
Upon researching his rights further, Vahey learned that under USERRA, GM should have granted him the same opportunity as others to transfer to another facility. Vahey sued GM for violating his USERRA rights, alleging failure to properly reemploy, unlawful discharge and discrimination on the basis of military service.
Rejecting GM’s motion for dismissal in Michael Vahey v. General Motors Company, the court said “a veteran’s waiver must be clearer and more specific.” Further the court noted that a veteran’s right to sue under USERRA is a substantive right, meaning it cannot be reduced, limited or eliminated by agreement, such as the severance that Vahey signed. The court said the “critical question” is whether the severance package was more beneficial to Vahey than his benefits protected by USERRA.
“The Court’s decision represents an important protection of a veteran’s right not to be disadvantaged in civilian life by his or her military service,” said Tully Rinckey PLLC Associate Matthew D. Estes, who is one of the attorneys representing Vahey. “The Court’s decision fully comports with Congress’s mandate that USERRA be interpreted liberally in favor of the veteran.”