Court: Feds with "lifetime tenure" can be fired for cause

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Somebody’s lifetime gig on the government payroll has come to an end after a bitter court battle, setting up what may become precedent for similar challenges in the future. The court case in question was heard at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and it involved a scientist who had been employed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Allen Braun was a research doctor working there who was dismissed for failing to correctly perform his duties in 2015. Braun objected and attempted to have his dismissal reversed, with his primary argument boiling down to a tantrum in which he claimed he couldn’t be fired in that fashion because he had “lifetime tenure.” The court disagreed with him. (Government Executive)

Federal employees who earn lifetime job appointments do not receive special treatment when being fired for cause, a federal court affirmed in a recent precedent-setting ruling.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit finalized that decision when it declined to review an earlier ruling before its full panel on a case related to a former National Institutes of Health scientist. It involved Allen Braun, a research doctor for more than 30 years at NIH, who won tenure status in 2003. NIH eventually fired Braun, who unsuccessfully argued the agency failed to properly consider his tenure status.

Braun originally took his case to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which we’ve discussed here many times in the past. The MSPB basically exists to serve the unions and prevent government employees from being dismissed even if they are caught literally stealing drugs intended for patients in a VA hospital. That effort didn’t appear to be paying off, so the disgruntled worker decided to take his case directly to the courts.

An investigation into Braun’s performance on the job seemed to make it clear that he didn’t have a leg to stand on here. It was determined that he had failed to complete records for all of the patients in a study he was running and he admitted as much to his supervisor. The investigation concluded that he had only completed the required records for 6% of the patients, leading to one person receiving the wrong medical procedure. Rather than this being a case of one or two oversights (that could happen to anyone), it was more of a standing pattern of noncompliance.

The only reason that Braun was able to drag things out this long was the fact that the unions had granted him “lifetime tenure” in his position. Personally, I thought the entire concept of tenure was primarily limited to the education field, but apparently not. This ridiculous practice is popping up nearly everywhere people are drawing a paycheck on the taxpayers’ dime. The entire concept of “tenure” is offensive to begin with. It’s based on the premise that after you’ve spent a certain amount of time in a given position you should be fireproof. But as we’ve seen all across the country, some people are capable of flying under the radar for a long time before they are exposed as either being grossly incompetent on guilty of malfeasance.

The idea that someone like Braun who was found to have clearly been remiss in his duties can’t be removed from the payroll simply because of a meaningless “tenure” designation is insulting to the people who had to pay his salary for all these years. It’s something of a relief to see the court agree with that sentiment. What we really need them to rule on, however, is whether or not there is even a place for tenure in the government employment system.