A nearly two-decadeslong legal battle entered a new phase this week when a soldier received notice to return to his job with the U.S. Postal Service after being fired in 2000.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson, a National Guard Special Forces veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, was dismissed from his role as distribution clerk in Fort Myers, Florida, due to “excessive use of military leave.” Erickson began working with the Postal Service in 1988 before joining the Guard in 1990.
Following his dismissal, Erickson appealed the decision to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) citing violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of military service. Court filings show that for nearly four years between 1996 and 2000, Erickson worked at his civilian job for “no more than four days.” USERRA’s provisions, however, maintain a five-year cap for reemployment.
An administrative judge with the MSPB concluded Erickson had failed to prove his military service was the primary motivating factor in his dismissal and denied the appeal. The case was remanded to determine whether Erickson had “abandoned” his civilian career in favor of a military career.
In 2011, after protracted legal proceedings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned the board’s decision. Then in 2014, the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered the Postal Service to reinstate Erickson and award him nearly 14 years of lost wages and benefits. “I answered the call of duty and served my country — and I got fired for it,” Erickson told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
Five years later, Erickson’s attorney, Mathew B. Tully, said the Postal Service had still not reinstated his client. Tully said the service repeatedly cited letters being sent to outdated mailing addresses as proof that it was attempting to contact Erickson. “This is the most egregious case of USERRA violation in the history of the federal government,” Tully said.
A representative from the Postal Service declined to comment on the case.
Erickson’s legal team filed an additional complaint with the MSPB in April 2019, alleging violations of court orders. Currently, the Merit Systems Protection Board has no sitting members, who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, adding to the case’s complexity.
Tully, who retired from the National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, is a founding partner at Tully Rinckey, a firm that specializes in USERRA litigation and veterans’ employment issues. “It’s because of Mr. Tully that I was able to be a voice and not a statistic,” Erickson said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here right now. Most of the lawyers I went to demanded $25,000 up front. I couldn’t afford that.”
On Jan. 6, Erickson received notice to return to work, but Tully said Erickson immediately faced a “hostile work environment” from Postal Service site managers. “They are trying to make an example out of him,” he said.
“I was not treated properly,” Erickson said. “It’s not the way to come back after 20 years into a company that still refuses to follow the court’s ruling.” His peers welcomed him back and thanked him for “fighting for a good cause.”
Erickson himself seemed to predict the nature of his return in 2011. “I’m kind of worried about going back and reprisals,” he told the Washington Post. “They might fire me the next day.”
To Erickson, his dismissal from the Postal Service necessitated him to continue in his active duty service to provide for his family. “I’m a single parent of three daughters, and I went over to fight for a country, but I’m fighting overseas, and I come back, I have to fight the post office for my job just so I can support my family,” Erickson told WINK News this week.
Despite the 2014 legal ruling, the two sides differ widely on the total amount owed in mandated back pay from the Postal Service. Tully asserts Erickson should receive around $1.7 million.
Given the MSPB’s current state, the case remains “in a state of limbo,” according to Tully. “They thought I was going to fold – that’s why they continue to drag it out," Erickson said. “I am not going to fold. I’m going to do the right thing no matter how long it takes. It’s about principle. I am not just doing this for me; I’m doing this for all the other veterans and people that have no means to fight for their rights."
Dylan Gresik is a reporting intern for Military Times through Northwestern University's Journalism Residency program.