Justice Department Reaches Settlement Agreement with Washington State Public Transit System on Behalf of Washington Army National Guard Member

The Department of Justice announced today that it has reached a settlement agreement with Pierce County Transportation Benefit Area Corporation of Pierce County, Washington. The settlement resolves allegations that Pierce Transit violated the employment rights of Washington Army National Guard Member Lieutenant Colonel C. Van Sawin guaranteed by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. USERRA safeguards the rights of uniformed servicemembers to retain their civilian employment following absences due to military service obligations.

Pierce Transit, headquartered in Lakewood, Washington, is a municipal corporation and an operator of public transit in Pierce County, Washington, located south of Seattle. According to allegations brought by LTC Sawin, and independently investigated by the DOJ, Pierce Transit violated USERRA by failing to reemploy LTC Sawin in September 2016 after he returned from active duty military service. Pierce Transit worked cooperatively with DOJ during its investigation and worked to reach a settlement that addressed the USERRA violation found by the Department.

LTC Sawin is a United States Military Academy graduate, who served on active duty as a U.S. Army Battalion Maintenance Officer. LTC Sawin has also served as a reservist and, between 2005 and 2006, deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. LTC Sawin was hired by Pierce Transit in 2007 and rose to become its Business Development Officer. In November 2015, LTC Sawin was activated to help lead the Washington National Guard’s earthquake readiness exercise, code named “Evergreen Tremor” – a weeklong exercise involving more than 1000 Washington National Guard soldiers and airmen across the state, as well as local, state and federal emergency response agencies. The drill took place in the Summer of 2016. Following the drill, LTC Sawin re-applied for his position in September 2016. Pierce Transit declined to re-employ LTC Sawin, stating that, while he was on active duty (in March 2016), it had laid him off following a reorganization that eliminated his position.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, which is not an admission of liability by Pierce Transit, Pierce Transit must pay LTC Sawin $105,000 to compensate him for lost and/or reduced wages and benefits, and other damages. Additionally, the settlement seeks to reduce the likelihood of future USERRA violations by requiring Pierce Transit to adopt a USERRA policy, to provide training to its high-level officials and human resources staff on the USERRA rights and obligations of employers and covered employees, and to report allegations of violations of USERRA and certify its compliance therewith to the DOJ for a period of two years. Pierce Transit also agreed to resolve any dispute about the agreement in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.

“Failure to reemploy a person who leaves their job because of military deployment, service, or training is a violation of the law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will ensure that service members like LTC Sawin, who was called away from his job in order to serve the country in the National Guard, can complete their military obligations without fear that by doing so, they will lose their civilian jobs.”

“We are fortunate to have many National Guard servicemen and women who live in western Washington who are prepared to sacrifice time with their families and civilian jobs to serve our country,” said U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. “Our job in the United States Attorney’s Office is to protect the rights of these citizen soldiers and to hold accountable employers who fail to meet their duties under the law.”

Subject to certain conditions, USERRA requires employers to promptly reemploy returning service members in the positions they would have held had their employment been not interrupted by military service, or in a position of like seniority, status and pay. Following a referral from the Department of Labor, the United States Department of Justice is authorized to bring claims on behalf of the men and women of our nation’s Armed Forces and veterans to recover employment rights including back pay, benefits and injunctive relief.

The matter was investigated and resolved by Assistant U.S. Attorney and Civil Rights Program Coordinator, J. Michael Diaz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Morehead in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, in collaboration with Andrew Braniff, USERRA/USAO Program Coordinator, in the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division have given a high priority to the enforcement of service members’ rights under USERRA. Additional information about USERRA can be found on the Justice Department’s websites at www.usdoj.gov/crt/emp and www.servicemembers.gov, as well as on the Labor Department’s website at www.dol.gov/vets/programs/userra/main.htm.