Higgins v. Department of Veterans Affairs, No. 18-2352 (Fed. Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Higgins began working at the Memphis VA Medical Center (VAMC) in 2007. Throughout his employment, Higgins reported unlawful activity ranging from misuse of agency letterhead to improper disposal of biohazardous material. Higgins had a history of conflict with his supervisors and coworkers. In 2016, a psychologist diagnosed Higgins as meeting the criteria for PTSD, chronic, concluding that “Higgins cannot work, even with restrictions, and this is permanent.” In March 2017, the VAMC suspended Higgins for using profanity with his supervisor. It was “the third incident of a similar type.” Because of his whistleblower status and PTSD, Higgins was offered a suspension without loss of pay.
In June 2017, the VAMC removed Higgins based on charges of disruptive behavior and the use of profane language during three incidents. The VAMC’s Chief of Police considered Higgins’s statements a valid threat and recommended that the Director wear a bulletproof vest and receive a police escort to and from his car. The Director successfully filed a workers’ compensation claim for PTSD. An Administrative Judge determined that removal was “within the range of reasonableness” and promoted “the efficiency of the service.” Higgins had established a prima facie whistleblower retaliation defense but the agency would have removed Higgins even absent his protected whistleblowing activity. The Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the Board improperly discounted evidence of Higgins’s PTSD and that the AJ abused his discretion by excluding testimony relevant to institutional motive to retaliate.