502 U.S. 215 (1991), 90-889, King v. St. Vincent's Hospital

Docket Nº:No. 90-889
Citation:502 U.S. 215, 112 S.Ct. 570, 116 L.Ed.2d 578, 60 U.S.L.W. 4061
Party Name:King v. St. Vincent's Hospital
Case Date:December 16, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 215

502 U.S. 215 (1991)

112 S.Ct. 570, 116 L.Ed.2d 578, 60 U.S.L.W. 4061

King

v.

St. Vincent's Hospital

No. 90-889

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 16, 1991

Argued Oct. 16, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner King, a National Guard member, advised his civilian employer, respondent St. Vincent's Hospital, that he had accepted a 3-year full-time appointment with the Guard, and requested a leave of absence from his hospital job as ostensibly guaranteed by 38 U.S.C. § 2024(d), the statute which provides reemployment rights to service personnel in King's position. St. Vincent's denied King's request, and brought suit in the District Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Act does not provide reemployment rights after tours of duty as long as King's. The court granted the requested relief, ruling that service of the type in question was protected by § 2024(d), but holding, under Circuit precedent, that leave requests under that subsection must be reasonable, and that King's request for a 3-year leave was per se unreasonable. A panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 2024(d) does not limit the length of military service after which a member of the Armed Forces retains a right to civilian reemployment. Subsection (d)'s text -- which specifies that any covered employee

shall . . . be granted a leave . . . for the period required to perform active duty [and] [u]pon . . . release from . . . such duty . . . shall be permitted to return to [his or her] position

-- is utterly silent about any durational limit on the protection it provides. Reading the statute as a whole, it must be inferred that the unqualified nature of subsection (d)'s protection was deliberate, since other subsections of § 2024, protecting other classes of full-time service personnel, expressly limit the periods of their protection. St. Vincent's argument that such limits reflect a hierarchy of reemployment rights -- under which reservists subject to duty under subsection (d) are entitled to the least protection, and are therefore subject to an imprecise durational limit of reasonableness -- is unconvincing, because its conclusion rests on circular reasoning, requiring the assumption of the point at issue: that § 2024(d) reservists really do get less protection than the inductees, enlistees, and other veterans covered by the other subsections. Pp. 218-223

901 F.2d 1068, (CA 11 1990), reversed and remanded.

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SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except THOMAS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

SOUTER, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether 38 U.S.C. § 2024(d), a provision of what is popularly known as the Veterans' Reemployment Rights Act, implicitly limits the length of military service after which a member of the Armed Forces retains a right to civilian reemployment. We hold that it does not.

I

In June, 1987, petitioner William "Sky" [112 S.Ct. 572] King,[1] a member of the Alabama National Guard,[2] applied to become Command Sergeant Major in the Active Guard/Reserve (AGR) program, and thereby undertook to serve the 3-year tour of duty required by Army regulations[3] of the person holding that position.[4] The next month, King learned of his selection and advised his employer, respondent St. Vincent's Hospital, that he had accepted the Guard's 3-year full-time appointment.

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He requested a leave of absence from his hospital job as ostensibly guaranteed by the Act, and reported for military duty, as ordered, on August 17. Several weeks later, St. Vincent's advised him that his request was unreasonable, and thus beyond the Act's guarantee.

After so informing King, St. Vincent's took the further step of bringing a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the District of Northern Alabama to settle the issue whether the applicable terms of the Act provided reemployment rights after tours of duty as long as King's. Although the court held that service in the AGR program carried protection under § 2024(d),[5] it nonetheless rendered declaratory judgment for St. Vincent's on the ground that the request for a 3-year leave of absence was per se unreasonable. In imposing a test of reasonableness on King's request, the District Court was following the opinion of the Eleventh Circuit in Gulf States Paper Corp. v. Ingram, 811 F.2d 1464, 1468 (1987), which had, in turn, interpreted a Fifth Circuit case as requiring that leave requests for protection under § 2024(d) must be reasonable. See Lee v. Pensacola, 634 F.2d 886, 889 (1981).[6] A panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, with two judges agreeing with the District Court that guaranteeing reemployment after a 3-year tour of duty would be per se unreasonable, thereby putting King outside the protection of § 2024(d). 901 F.2d 1068 (1990). Judge Roney concurred separately that King's request was unreasonable, but dissented from the creation of a per se rule. Id. at 1072-1073.

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Like the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, the Third has engrafted a reasonableness requirement onto § 2024(d). Eidukonis v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, 873 F.2d 688, 694 (1989).[7] The Fourth Circuit, on the other hand, has declined to do so. Kolkhorst v. Tilghman, 897 F.2d 1282, 1286 (1990), cert. pending, No. 89-1949. We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict, 498 U.S. 1081 (1991), and now reverse the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit.

II

We start with the text of § 2024(d), see Schreiber v. Burlington Northern, Inc., 472 U.S. 1, 5 (1985), [112 S.Ct. 573] which is free of any express conditions upon the provisions in contention here:

[Any covered person] shall upon request be granted a leave of absence by such person's employer for the period required to perform active duty for training or inactive duty training in the Armed Forces of the United States. Upon such employee's release from a period of such . . . [duty] . . . such employee shall be permitted to return to such employee's position with such seniority, status, pay, and vacation as such employee would have had if such employee had not been absent for such purposes.

38 U.S.C. § 2024(d) (1988 ed.). Thus, the Fourth Circuit could call the subsection's guarantee of leave and reemployment "unequivocal and unqualified," Kolkhorst, supra, at 1286, and the Eleventh Circuit itself observed that the subsection "does not address the

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`reasonableness' of a reservist's leave request." Gulf States, supra, at 1468.

Although St. Vincent's recognizes the importance of the statute's freedom from provisos, see Brief for Respondent 9, it still argues that the text of subsection (d) favors its position. The hospital stresses that "leave" as used in subsection (d) is to be enjoyed by an "employee," whose status as such implies that the employment relationship continues during the absence. Accordingly, employees protected under subsection (d) are "returned" to their positions after military service is over, while reservists protected by other subsections of § 2024 are "restored" to theirs,[8] the difference in language attesting that the former remain employees, while the latter cease to be such during their time away. The hospital argues that the very notion of such a continuing relationship is incompatible with absences as lengthy as King's, and finds that conclusion supported by the provisions speaking to the actual mechanics for resuming employment. While the reservists subject to other subsections must reapply for employment, those protected by subsection (d) are...

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