Former majors sue Air Force for retirement benefits, reinstatement

Firing someone before they qualify for retirement sounds like something a business would do to a character in a Hollywood movie, but what about officials in the military?

That’s what a group of 16 former majors claims happened to them in a series of lawsuits against the Air Force, stating they were unlawfully separated from the military in November 2011 to avoid paying out their retirement packages.

The lawsuits, filed at the Federal Court of Claims, alleges former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley shortened a protective window for airmen from six years to five years without following regulation, eliminating some officers’ pensions.

In some cases, separated officers also were forced to pay back bonuses they had received for continuing their active duty.

Greg Rinckey, a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC, and the attorney representing the officers in their case, said these types of dismissals affected an estimated 200 officers across the military in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Greg Rinckey
Greg Rinckey

“We’re asking [the court] that they be put back on active duty, qualify for an active duty retirement or potentially even an early retirement, and that they not have to pay back any bonus that they took,” said Rinckey.

The lawsuit alleges then-Secretary Donley made the changes to the retirement window improperly because he should’ve first notified the Secretary of Defense. The Department of Defense has the final say on any changes to the retirement window.

DoD closed the gap from six years to four in 2012, but Donley changed the Air Force retirement window two years before the official change.

According to Rinckey, some officers were let go a short time before the Air Force instituted Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA).

“If these officers had not been separated early within this three-week period, they would have qualified for early retirement,” he said. “Some of these officers got hit with double whammies of not only losing their job and losing their retirement, but then also having to repay a bonus.”

Rinckey said the separations are likely a result of recent cutbacks across the military.

“As the military is downsizing, there’s a pressure to cull the herd,” he said. “We’ve even seen it through pre-commissioning programs — whether it be through ROTC or the academies — where the regulations were looked at a little more leniently in the past, now they’re adhering to regulation pretty stringently so they can reduce the number of officers.”

Rinckey said any officer in the same situation is free to file a lawsuit at the Federal Court of Claims,  but would have to file separately for the time being since there isn’t a class action lawsuit for the case.

“It’s not a class action suit because each officers facts are different,” Rinckey said. “Some were able to get into the reserves and then get retirement through a reserve. Some of them were also promoted in the reserves. We filed these individually and now we’re going to move to consolidate the cases so that they can be heard together.”

Rinckey said the next step is waiting for a response from the Air Force trough the Federal Court of Claims. When asked about a timeline for the case, Rinckey said he anticipates “hearing something in the next several months.”

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