Suing Over Suggestions

An employee of the Social Security Administration, described in a court’s opinion as “an energetic federal employee who has previously received awards for other suggestions that were adopted by the SSA…”, has gone to court to get more money. He received awards of $1300 and $24,350 and the agency recommended a 3rd award of more than $32,000 which was rejected by OPM. The court did not mind second-guessing OPM and SSA on their handling of the suggestion process but declined to make its own determination on award amounts.

The Court of Federal Claims has found that there was an implied-in-fact contract between the Social Security Administration and its employee whose suggestions the agency adopted. The court remanded to the agency the employee’s claim that SSA owes him more award money under the Employee Suggestion Program, and has given the agency 180 days to revisit its suggestion award determination. (Opinion, p. 15, Cooley v. United States, U.S. Court of Federal Claims No. 06-284C, 5/25/07)

Cooley, described in the court’s opinion as "an energetic federal employee who has previously received awards for other suggestions that were adopted by the SSA…" (Opinion, p. 2) made three suggestions in 1994, 1999 and 2000. All involved a particular SSA computer system that screens beneficiaries to ensure that they have met certain legal requirements. SSA adopted all three suggestions and eventually awarded Cooley some $25,750. In response to pressure from Cooley for a higher award, the agency then recommended to OPM that Cooley be awarded an additional $32,819, an amount that exceeded the agency’s authority and would require presidential approval. However, OPM rejected that recommendation, indicating that the amount already awarded to Cooley was within guidelines. (pp. 1-2)

Cooley sued, arguing that when SSA put his suggested improvements into place in its programs, this created an implied-in-fact contract to pay him a greater award for his suggestions. The government countered with the fact that the amount Cooley sought required presidential approval, and, therefore the $25,000 award limit was the most he could expect under his contract theory. (p. 9)

The court’s opinion goes into a great deal of factual detail about the back-and-forth between Cooley, SSA, and OPM. It also goes into a detailed analysis of the case law relating to implied-in-fact contracts resulting from an agency’s adoption of an employee’s suggestion. Suffice it to say that in Cooley’s case, the court has found that it had jurisdiction based on an implied-in-fact contract: "It is undisputed that SSA adopted three of the suggestions that Mr. Cooley made and SSA endeavored to provide awards to Mr. Cooley for one or more of those suggestions." (p. 12)

The court goes on to find that SSA, while it adopted three suggestions, erred by considering them as one for purposes of determining a proper award amount. And, OPM rejected a higher award based on this lumping together of the three suggestions. The court opines that by doing so, the agency and OPM "made their decisions about awards for his suggestions on the mistaken premise that only one suggestion was involved rather than three….[Their] actions in this regard contravened the implied-in-fact contract with Mr. Cooley." (p. 13)

While happy to second guess the agency and OPM on their handling of the suggestion process, the court was not about to jump into the fray and make its own determination on the award amounts: "Section 4503 of Title 5 grants to the SSA Commissioner, not this court, the authority to grant cash awards to employees for their suggestions." (p. 13)

The court therefore has kicked the matter back to SSA to look anew at each suggestion and determine the appropriate award on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the amount that Cooley has already been awarded. The court further instructs that the limits on award authority still apply and that approvals, if needed, must still be sought from OPM and the president (for any amount over $25,000).

Bottom line: the court has ordered the earlier SSA recommendation of a $32,819 suggestion award for Cooley vacated, and has remanded the matter back to SSA, giving the agency 180 days to get the job done and report back. (p. 15)

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.