March 31, 2003
Public Citizen Asks Supreme Court to Hear Case Challenging Defense Department’s Recoupment of Bonuses from Discharged Service Members
Supreme Court Filing Seeks Relief for Thousands of Veterans
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A class of former servicemen and women today presented the U.S. Supreme Court with a petition challenging the government’s practice of “recouping” bonuses from service members who receive involuntary honorable discharges when they do not succeed in meeting weight and fitness standards.
The law under which the government has recovered the bonus payments permits recoupment only when a service member leaves the armed forces “voluntarily or because of misconduct,” but the military has taken money from members discharged under weight and fitness standards even though the government concedes those discharges were involuntary and involved no misconduct. The bonuses range from $1,000 to $30,000.
The petition is being filed on behalf of a class that consists of more than 2,300 service members who were induced to enlist or re-enlist by the promise of substantial bonus payments, but then were discharged for weight or fitness reasons during the past decade, when the military was downsizing. The government has used collection agencies, bad credit reports and monthly payment plans to take back the money.
None of the class members was discharged for not trying hard enough to meet weight or fitness standards, and none requested the discharge. Although the recovery of bonus payments from involuntarily discharged members is contrary to applicable statutes and the Defense Department’s own published regulations, the government has defended its practice in the lower courts by calling the discharges “voluntary involuntary discharges” and contending that unpublished internal memoranda supersede the published regulations that forbid recouping the bonuses. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in previous rulings have accepted the government’s argument.
The Supreme Court filing challenging the lower courts’ rulings was prepared by Public Citizen attorneys and by Maine attorney Michael Feldman, who represented the class in the lower courts. The petition argues that the government’s practice violates the clear terms of the relevant statutes and that the reliance on unpublished memoranda to contradict the terms of published regulations is improper and unlawful.
“The government’s position in this case is downright bizarre,” said Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Scott Nelson. “There is no support in the law for the idea that secret, unpublished internal memos can trump the terms of the published regulations that these service members had every right to rely on when they enlisted or re-enlisted.”
Added Feldman, “These veterans wanted to serve their country. They played by the rules and did everything it asked of them. They didn’t leave the service ‘voluntarily’ in any sense of the word, and they shouldn’t forfeit their bonus payments just because the government forced them out of the service.”
Click here to view the petition.