Vitarelli v. Seaton

Decision Date01 June 1959
Docket NumberNo. 101,101
Citation3 L.Ed.2d 1012,359 U.S. 535,79 S.Ct. 968
PartiesWilliam Vincent VITARELLI, Pettio ner v. Fred A. SEATON, Secretary of the Interior, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Clifford J. Hynning, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. John G. Laughlin, Jr., Washington, D.C., for respondents.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the legality of petitioner's discharge as an employee of the Department of the Interior. Vitarelli, an educator holding a doctor's degree from Columbia University, was appointed in 1952 by the Department of the Interior as an Education and Training Specialist in the Education Department of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, at Koror in the Palau District, a mandated area for which this country has responsibility.

By a letter dated March 30, 1954, respondent Secretary's predecessor in office notified petitioner of his suspension from duty without pay, effective April 2, 1954, assigning as ground therefor various charges. Essentially, the charges were that petitioner from 1941 to 1945 had been in 'sympathetic association' with three named persons alleged to have been members of or in sympathetic association with the Communist Party, and had concealed from the Government the true extent of these associations at the time of a previous inquiry into them; that he had registered as a supporter of the American Labor Party in New York City in 1945, had subscribed to the USSR Information Bulletin, and had purchased copies of the Daily Worker and New Masses; and that because such associations and activities tended to show that petitioner was 'not reliable or trustworthy' his continued employment might be 'contrary to the best interests of national security.'

Petitioner filed a written answer to the statement of charges, and appeared before a security hearing board on June 22 and July 1, 1954. At this hearing no evidence was adduced by the Department in support of the charges, nor did any witness testify against petitioner. Petitioner testified at length, and presented four witnesses, and he and the witnesses were extensively cross-examined by the security officer and the members of the hearing board. On September 2, 1954, a notice of dismissal effective September 10, 1954, was sent petitioner over the signature of the Secretary, reciting that the dismissal was 'in the interest of national security for the reasons specifically set forth in the letter of charges dated March 30, 1954.' This was followed on September 21, 1954, with the filing of a 'Notification of Personnel Action' setting forth the Secretary's action. The record does not show that a copy of this document was ever sent to petitioner.

After having failed to obtain reinstatement by a demand upon the Secretary, petitioner filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a declaration that his dismissal had been illegal and ineffective and an injunction requiring his reinstatement. On October 10, 1956, while the case was pending in the District Court, a copy of a new 'Notification of Personnel Action,' dated September 21, 1954, and reciting that it was 'a revision of and replaces the original bearing the same date,' was filed in the District Court, and another copy of this document was delivered to petitioner shortly thereafter. This notification was identical with the one already mentioned, except that it omitted any reference to the reason for petitioner's discharge and to the authority under which it was carried out. 1 Thereafter the District Court granted summary judgment for the respondent. That judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting. 102 U.S.App.D.C. 316, 253 F.2d 338. We granted certiorari to consider the validity of petitioner's discharge. 358 U.S. 871, 79 S.Ct. 110, 3 L.Ed.2d 103.

The Secretary's letter of March 30, 1954, and notice of dismissal of September 2, 1954, both relied upon Exec. Order No. 10450, 18 Fed.Reg. 2489 (1953), 5 U.S.C.A. § 631 note, the Act of August 26. 1950, 64 Stat. 476, 5 U.S.C. § 22—1 et seq., 5 U.S.C.A. § 22—1 et seq., and Department of the Interior Order No. 2738, all relating to discharges of government employees on security or loyalty grounds, as the authority for petitioner's dismissal. In Cole v. Young, 351 U.S. 536, 76 S.Ct. 861, 100 L.Ed. 1396, this Court held that the statute referred to did not apply to government employees in positions not designated as 'sentitive.' Respondent takes the position that since petitioner's position in government service has at no time been designated as sensitive the effect of Cole, which was decided after the 1954 dismissal of petitioner, was to render also inapplicable to petitioner Department of the Interior Order No. 2738, under which the proceedings relating to petitioner's dismissal were had. It is urged that in this state of affairs petitioner, who concededly was at no time within the protection of the Civil Service Act, 5 U.S.C.A. § 632 et seq., Veterans' Preference Act, 5 U.S.C.A. § 851 et seq., or any other statute relating to employment rights of government employees, and who, as a 'Schedule A' employee, could have been summarily discharged by the Secretary at any time without the giving of a reason, under no circumstances could be entitled to more than that which he has already received—namely, an 'expunging' from the record of his 1954 discharge of any reference to the authority or reasons therefor.

Respondent misconceives the effect of our decision in Cole. It is true that the Act of August 26, 1950, and the Executive Order did not alter the power of the Secretary to discharge summarily an employee in petitioner's status, without the giving of any reason. Nor did the Department's own regulations preclude such a course. Since, however, the Secretary gratuitously decided to give a reason, and that reason was national security, he was obligated to conform to the procedural standards he had formulated in Order No. 2738 for the dismissal of employees on security grounds. Service v. Dulles, 354 U.S. 363, 77 S.Ct. 1152, 1 L.Ed.2d 1403. That Order on its face applies to all security discharges in the Department of the Interior, including such discharges of Schedule A employees. Cole v. Young established that the Act of August 26, 1950, did not permit the discharge of nonsensitive employees pursuant to procedures authorized by that Act if those procedures were more summary than those to which the employee would have been entitled by virtue of any pre-existing statute or regulation. That decision cannot, however, justify noncompliance by the Secretary with regulations promulgated by him in the departmental Order, which as to petitioner afford greater procedural protections in the case of a dismissal stated to be for security reasons than in the case of dismissal without any statement of reasons. Having chosen to proceed against petitioner on security grounds, the Secretary here, as in Service, was bound by the regulations which he himself had promulgated for dealing with such cases, even though without such regulations he could have discharged petitioner summarily.

Petitioner makes various contentions as to the constitutional invalidity of the procedures provided by Order No. 2738. He further urges that even assuming the validity of the governing procedures, his dismissal cannot stand because the notice of suspension and hearing given him did not comply with the Order. We find it unnecessary to reach the constitutional issues, for we think that petitioner's second position is well taken and must be sustained.

Preliminarily, it should be said that departures from departmental egu lations in matters of this kind involve more than mere consideration of procedural irregularities. For in proceedings of this nature, in which the ordinary rules of evidence do not apply, in which matters involving the disclosure of confidential information are withheld, and where it must be recognized that counsel is under practical constraints in the making of objections and in the tactical handling of his case which would not obtain in a cause being tried in a court of law before trained judges, scrupulous observance of departmental procedural safeguards is clearly of particular importance.2 In this instance an examination of the record, and of the transcript of the hearing before the departmental security board, discloses that petitioner's procedural rights under the applicable regulations were violated in at least three material respects in the proceedings which terminated in the final notice of his dismissal.

First, § 15(a) of Order No. 2738 requires that the statement of charges served upon an employee at the time of his suspension on security grounds 'shall be as specific and detailed as security considerations, including the need for protection of confidential sources of information, permit * * * and shall be subject to amendment within 30 days of issuance.' Although the statement of charges furnished petitioner appears on its face to be reasonably specific, 3 the transcript of hearing establishes that the statement, which was never amended, cannot conceivably be said in fact to be as specific and detailed as 'security considerations * * * permit.' For petitioner was questioned by the security officer and by the hearing board in great detail concerning his association with and knowledge of various persons and organizations nowhere mentioned in the statement of charges,4 and at length concerning his activities in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere after 1945, activities as to which the charges are also completely silent. These questions were presumably asked because they were deemed relevant to the inquiry before the board, and the very fact that they were asked and thus spread on the record is conclusive indication that 'security considerations' could not have justified the omission of any statement concerning them in the...

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