Santos v. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, No. 19-2345 (Fed. Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Santos’s affiliation with NASA started in 1997. In 2018, Santos, then a NASA mechanical engineer and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was transferred to a new division, under the supervision of Balles, chief of the Ground Systems Branch of the Commercial Division. Despite receiving multiple accolades for his service in previous years, Santos began receiving letters of instruction and reprimand under Balles, alleging deficient performance. Although Balles maintained that she had no problems with Santos’s mandatory military obligations, the timing of many letters coincided with Santos’s requests for military leave. The letters emphasized Santos’s ability to “report to work in a timely manner and maintain regular attendance at work.” After months of difficulties, Balles formally placed Santos on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and later issued a notice of proposed removal. The Merit Systems Protection Board upheld his removal, rejecting Santos’s claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. 4331(a).
The Federal Circuit vacated. The Board’s decision to not consider Santos’s allegation that he should never have been placed on a PIP was based on a misinterpretation of 5 U.S.C. 4302(c)(6). The events leading to Santos’s PIP may be directly relevant to Santos’s ability to satisfy his initial burden under USERRA.