Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Here’s a strange case where the Air Force and now the district court have refused to let an Air Force ROTC cadet booted out of the program have his cake and eat it too.

This case involves a ROTC cadet at James Madison University who simply does not want to serve in the Air Force, although it is apparently okay by him that the military paid for his education. (Maunz v. James, Secretary of the Air Force (DDC Civil Action No. 13-1858 (JDB), 1/12/15))

These facts are as explained in the court’s decision.

Mr. Maunz enrolled in AF ROTC and enjoyed the education benefits until he ran afoul of civilian law enforcement, which resulted in trouble with his ROTC unit.  Following his arrest in North Carolina for various offenses, including speeding, possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, Maunz did not notify his commander of his arrest within 72 hours as required by the rules. Indeed, it took him fifty days or so to get around to it while he worked to clear his name with North Carolina prosecutors. He worked out a plea deal that dropped the drug related charges, reduced the traffic charges, and in return required Maunz to do some community service. Unfortunately for Maunz his military superiors were none too pleased to find out what was going on almost two months after the fact. Maunz was booted from the program for failing to report the arrest as required and thus committing what was in their opinion a “serious breach of trust.” (Opinion pp 1-2)

The AF then informed Maunz he was required to repay the scholarship funds to the tune of $27,746. (p. 2)

Maunz challenged the demand for reimbursement by taking his case to the AF Board for Correction of Military Records, arguing how unjustly and harshly he had been treated since in the end he in fact did report the arrest, and, by the way, he “meant well when he delayed his report.” (p. 3)

Maunz asked the Board to reinstate him, clean up his record, stop trying to get the scholarship funds back, and thereby “allow a dedicated and highly competent cadet to continue to pursue becoming an officer in the Air Force and provide sound leadership to the service.” (p. 3)

Lo and behold the Board sided with Maunz. It found the 72-hour report rule was somewhat ambiguous, he did in fact report the arrest, and this was his first discipline. Maunz won big in that the Board excised the discipline from his record, stopped the collection efforts and indicated the AF should reinstate Maunz. As the court stated, “Maunz, in short, had won. But his next steps would not show it.” (p. 3)

His attorney asked the Board does this mean Maunz has to return to active duty, which he does not want to do since he had landed a pretty good job that was paying for graduate school. The Board replied, uh, yes it means he has to be reinstated if he wants the relief ordered up by the Board. Of course he was free to ask for reconsideration from the Board, but Maunz was cautioned he might now like the outcome of that. (p. 4)

Undeterred, Maunz soldiered on and asked for reconsideration. Basically he wanted the relief—clean record, no reimbursement of his scholarship money—but he did not want reinstatement—he did not want to pay the price of having to serve in the AF.

Okay. The Board then handed Maunz defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. They concluded further corrective action was not warranted and Maunz either had to enter the Air Force or live with paying back the education funds and having a tarnished record.

Maunz took his case to court. Basically he argued the Board had failed to provide “full and effective and thorough and fitting relief…” since it was not willing to grant him everything without requiring he serve in the military. (p. 5)

Bad news for Maunz. The court has found that the Board had acted perfectly properly, following the regulations “to a tee.” (p. 6) Stating that the Board is not “hostage to Maunz’s subjective—and evolving—preferences for corrective action…” the court points out that it is a matter of Board discretion as to how to correct a perceived injustice. The Board gave Maunz everything he asked for, but then he wanted more. “Just because he—years later—wishes he had asked for something else does not make the Board’s …decision contrary to law.” (p. 9)

At the end of the day, Maunz is stuck with the Board’s proffered choice—erase the discipline and serve in the AF, or pay back the costs of his education and live with a tarnished ROTC record.

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.