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by RestonNow.com Sponsor — October 9, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry

It can be very difficult for an employee to be called into a supervisor’s office or to the human resources office unexpectedly and be informed that his/her employment has been terminated. Following the notice of termination, usually the employee is escorted out of the building and is faced with a sense of shock and loss.

It is important to know that termination proceedings in Virginia are at will, which generally leaves significant discretion to employers in decisions to hire and fire employees.

However, if the employer has violated a state or federal law in terminating the employee (e.g., discrimination, whistleblowing, retaliation), the termination can be considered wrongful and potential avenues to challenge the termination may be available.

One step that a Virginia employee can do following an involuntary termination is to make an appointment with a Virginia employment attorney to review the issues related to the termination action in order to determine whether it can be considered a wrongful termination.

An attorney can also help evaluate what steps may be taken to minimize the career damage that has just occurred and whether the action taken may be appealable.

Employees often have more options following a termination action than is apparent to them on the day of termination. The employer may have broken federal or Virginia laws with respect to the termination action.

If so, then it may be possible to negotiate a resolution, such as through a separation or severance agreement, on behalf of the employee with the employer. This generally happens when the employee retains an attorney to contact the employer about the inappropriate nature of the employee’s termination in violation of applicable employment laws.

Following an employee’s termination, many Virginia employees ask our firm whether they should also apply for unemployment compensation. The answer as to whether an employee should apply for unemployment compensation depends on the factual circumstances of the termination.

Even if an employer terminates an employee in Virginia for alleged misconduct, the employee may still be able to seek and obtain unemployment compensation.

In addition, in Virginia the employer has the burden of proof if they want to argue that the employee was terminated for misconduct. The employer essentially has to prove that the employee violated a significant company rule (and it usually must be a clear rule).

In addition, it is often the case that an employee, through wrongful discharge negotiations, may obtain a resolution where the employer agrees not to contest unemployment.

Finally, an employee should keep in mind that if the employee is terminated for poor performance, as opposed to misconduct, unemployment compensation is generally granted. However, any separation or severance compensation received by the employee will typically delay receipt of unemployment compensation.

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by RestonNow.com Sponsor — September 25, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

Many federal employees and government contractors are required to apply for and maintain security clearances. In some cases, the security clearance application process is straightforward. However, if problems arise, they are typically discovered when the employee or contractor is about to complete his or her security clearance application through e-QIP or the government’s Standard Form 86. If possible, you should seek the advice of an experienced attorney who handles security clearance matters since each case is different. The following are some general guidelines:

Take time and answer security clearance forms carefully

This is one of the most important tips. Individuals often receive clearance denials because they did not adequately read the questions asked or proofread their responses on the e-QIP/SF-86 application prior to submission. In some cases, if an individual does not take the time to read the question and answers “no,” when they should have answered “yes,” to a question, a clearance investigator might conclude that the individual was attempting to be dishonest. This is important to understand as such an oversight can be very detrimental to obtaining or keeping a security clearance. Therefore, it is very important to carefully complete the security clearance application before submitting it.

Be honest

This recommendation cannot be overstated. Individuals should be honest in all aspects of the clearance process. When an individual is dishonest during the clearance process, it could not only potentially bar the individual from receiving a security clearance, which would remain on his or her clearance record, but it could also raise a host of other legal issues, including potential criminal issues. It is much easier for a security clearance attorney to mitigate security clearance concerns involving financial, prior drug or alcohol usage issues than defend against an allegation involving dishonesty in the clearance application or interview process. An applicant should consult with a security clearance attorney for legal advice if there are any possible criminal disclosures or issues.

Review documents in advance

Take the necessary time to gather and review relevant documents related to any potential security clearance problem in advance. Taking this step will help an individual in two ways: (a) it will help an individual remember all the details of the potential security concern, such as an arrest or bankruptcy filing that occurred three years ago, in preparation for answering questions; and (b) the documentation may help to mitigate the security concerns later, if necessary.

Prepare for the investigative interview

If an individual believes that there is a good chance that problem areas exist in a security clearance application, he or she should expect to be asked about these areas by the assigned investigator. The investigative interview can vary in duration from an hour to several hours depending on whether significant security concerns exist. Early preparation for the security clearance interview can help minimize any problem areas. Unfortunately, many individuals go into the interviews without thinking about or preparing for the issues that could arise and often provide incomplete information. Interview preparation can also help the individual’s confidence when meeting with the investigator to explain application responses that raise any security concerns.

Don‘t react defensively to security clearance questions

Refrain from reacting defensively when asked by an investigator about potential security concerns in a security clearance application. It is important to be calm and positive about the issues when speaking to an investigator. In addition, arguing with an investigator will never benefit an individual since the investigator can have significant influence over the application process in the initial stages.

Be courteous and professional with the investigator

It is important for all applicants to treat the investigator with professionalism. If an investigator attempts to contact you, be timely and courteous in your response. Even if it is inconvenient to meet or return calls, not doing so could be detrimental. Promptly responding to the investigator can give the investigator a positive impression, especially if the investigator will be providing a recommendation regarding your ability to obtain or retain a clearance.

Be patient during the security clearance process

It is important to understand that the security clearance process can often take a few months to complete depending upon a number of other factors, including: (a) whether the individual is a federal employee or government contractor; (b) the number or significance of the security concerns; (c) delays in obtaining responses from federal agencies in seeking an investigative file; (d) the general investigative backlog; and (e) the specific employer involved.  There are a multitude of other considerations that can also delay adjudication so it is important to remain patient during the investigation.

If you need assistance with an employment issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — September 11, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

We thought it might be helpful to submit an article on leave laws and rules that cover Virginia employees. Leave issues always come up either during the course of an employee’s employment or immediately following the end of employment. Leave laws and regulations also vary by the type of employer. For instance, federal, state, county and private sector employers have different laws and rules governing leave. Virginia has not codified many areas of employee leave as of yet, but that may be changing as other states enact improvements.

Virginia is one of those states where most forms of employee leave are not mandatory, but I suspect that may change in the future as Northern Virginia grows larger with more employers. Some jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, have moved toward expanded paid leave. Fortunately for most Virginia employees, many forms of leave, while not mandatory, are typically provided by employers in order for them to remain competitive in retaining employees. I will go through each form of leave in Virginia below:

Vacation Leave / Annual Leave

In Virginia, private sector employers are not required by law to provide employees with vacation/annual leave, either in a paid or unpaid status. This is different for federal, state and county employees in Virginia. For instance, federal employees accrue a certain amount of annual or vacation leave each pay period and can then use this leave for vacation or taking days off. When a federal employee leaves the federal government, they are paid out for the remaining balance of annual leave. While payout of accrued vacation or annual leave has not been mandated for private sector employers, if it is pursuant to a consistent company practice or policy, the employer in Virginia may be required to pay such leave out to departing employees.

Sick Leave

In Virginia, there is also no state requirement that employers provide employees with sick leave benefits. Virginia is different in this respect when compared to many other states. However, if an employer chooses to provide sick leave to employees, it must follow the established policy. There are some other notes on sick leave. First, federal, state and county employees are generally given sick leave in increments. Furthermore, under federal law, private sector employees of larger Virginia companies (more than 50 employees) are entitled to sick leave when given under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Under the FMLA, private sector employees in Virginia may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for a serious health condition, bonding with a new child, or qualifying exigencies. This type of leave renews every 12 months as long as the employee continues to meet the eligibility requirements set out above. Employees may also take up to 26 weeks of leave in a single 12-month period to care for a family member who was injured on active military duty.

Administrative Leave

While there is no entitlement to administrative leave for employees in Virginia, it can and is often granted. Typically, this type of leave is granted for reasons related to misconduct or equal employment opportunity investigations or other miscellaneous issues that arise. Federal, state and county employees have their own unique policies for administrative leave, which vary.

Holiday Leave

Additionally, the Commonwealth of Virginia does not require private employers to provide employees with either paid or unpaid holiday leave. Additionally, a Virginia employer does not have to pay an employee premium or enhanced pay for working on a holiday. Again, different standards apply for federal, county and state employees, depending on position (e.g., law enforcement), who may receive holiday pay for their work and/or premium pays.

Voter Leave

In Virginia, an employer is not required to give leave for an employee to vote. However, Virginia does require an employer to accommodate an employee who has been appointed as an election official. Some federal and other public employees have policies of permitting some administrative leave for voting where necessary.

Jury Duty Leave

In Virginia, an employer is not required to provide leave for jury duty, but cannot discharge or retaliate against the employee if they have given reasonable notice to their employer. Additionally, an employer may not charge a private sector employee vacation or annual leave for jury duty service. An employer that violates these provisions is guilty of a misdemeanor (VA Code. §18.2-465.1).

If you need assistance with an employment issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — August 28, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

In an unusual departure from the previous administration, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are taking opposing positions on sexual orientation discrimination in a case that is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

In Zarda v. Altitude Express (Case No. 15-3775), Donald Zarda, who was a skydiving instructor, was terminated by his employer after he disclosed his sexual orientation to a female customer, who then complained that he had done so. The allegation in the underlying lawsuit was that the employer did not punish other instructors who openly discussed their heterosexual orientation with customers.

At issue is whether sexual orientation discrimination is discrimination based on sex. Basically, the semantics are being argued. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against employment discrimination “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” From the statute, the two conflicting government positions have emerged.

Dueling Government Legal Positions

Although the DOJ and EEOC are not parties in the case, both have filed legal briefs on the issue of whether sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited in the workplace.

The DOJ Legal Argument

The DOJ filed a brief arguing that it was not illegal to fire an employee based on his or her sexual orientation under federal law. The DOJ’s argument, from its brief, can be summarized as follows: “The term “sex” is not defined in Title VII, but in common, ordinary usage in 1964 — and now, for that matter — the word ‘sex’ means biologically male or female. As for the term “discrimination,” the Supreme Court has held that Title VII requires a showing that an employer has treated “similarly situated employees” of different sexes unequally. Title VII does not proscribe discrimination because of sexual orientation because the term ‘sex’ in Title VII refers only to membership in a class delineated by gender.”

The EEOC Legal Argument

The EEOC filed their brief arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected workers from sexual orientation discrimination. The EEOC’s position can be summarized as follows: “In passing Title VII, Congress made the “simple but momentous announcement” that sex, like other protected characteristics, is “not relevant” to employment decisions; thus in making such decisions, employers “may not take gender into account.” . . . Sexual orientation discrimination requires the employer to take the employee’s sex into account. In short, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on that employee’s sexual orientation without taking the employee’s sex into account — precisely what Title VII forbids.”

Where these Dueling Government Positions Leave the Public

As a result of the Zarda case, the DOJ and the EEOC are essentially opposing each other’s legal position on sexual orientation discrimination in the same case. The DOJ is not a party to the case, which is why it is significant that it chose to interject itself into this debate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will decide whose legal position is right.

For now, individuals with sexual orientation discrimination claims should pursue them as usual either through the EEOC or in the courts. The EEOC position is settled law for federal employees. The DOJ’s new position will not likely have an effect, if at all, until the courts finish ruling on the issue. A decision may ultimately be made by the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether individuals are protected from sexual orientation discrimination. Regardless of politics, it is this author’s opinion that it is very likely that the EEOC’s position will ultimately prevail. The next step in the Zarda case is for the DOJ, the EEOC, the plaintiff, the defendant, and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund to make oral arguments in New York City, NY, on September 26, 2017.

If you need assistance with an employment issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — August 14, 2017 at 11:30 am 7 Comments

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

In the wake of the tragic events this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a number of the white supremacists protesting have been identified and outed by social media and then subsequently fired from their employment.

One issue that has arisen is the argument that these individuals have a First Amendment right to speak their minds, however wrong they may be, and to not suffer negative consequences. That is not true. The First Amendment offers almost zero protection for individuals who engage in hate or other inappropriate speech who are then fired from private sector employment.  

There are very limited forms of protection for federal and public sector employees under the First Amendment only because the government implements employment actions. Generally, a government employee must be engaging in speech that is considered a matter of public concern to receive some protection. That protection can be taken away if it interferes with the function of a government agency. In our experience, a public sector employer might need to take additional steps but can usually find ways to fire a public employee for engaging in hate speech.  

In sum, not much has changed since 1892 when Justice Holmes, in a famous quote involving the termination of a police officer for engaging in politics, stated: “The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford, 155 Mass. 216, 220, 29 N.E. 517 (1892).

The First Amendment

The First Amendment provides the following rights:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment protects private individuals from government suppression of free speech, but not from other private individuals and/or companies who take action as a result of speech. For instance, there is no First Amendment issue with social media companies selectively banning users from their platform based on their speech.  There could be a First Amendment issue if a government entity made a similar type of decision based on speech.     

State Laws

Some states, but not Virginia, have offered state legislation that protects employees from being terminated for legal, off-duty speech that does not conflict with the employer’s business-related interests. States of note that offer this minimal protection include California, New York, Colorado, North Dakota and Montana. Even under these laws, it would be relatively easy for an employer to establish that off-duty hate speech interferes with an employer’s business interests (e.g., boycotts). In short, there is no true legal protection for hate speech for private employees in these states.  

Recent Issues Relating to the Charlottesville Tragedy

These issues have arisen principally as a result of the identification of far-right protesters by various social media groups that have identified hate-speech protesters and then contacted their employers, schools, and friends. The principal group that has engaged in this tactic is the Twitter account @YesYoureRacist.  The group has apparently had success in convincing employers to terminate employees based on their participation in the Charlottesville protest.  

Obviously, employers would much rather terminate an employee involved in free speech than face the consequences of a boycott. Can they do so? Yes, they can. Why? Because the First Amendment protects the right of people engaging in hate speech, but it also protects their employers who do not wish to be associated with them. As such, First Amendment rights go both ways. Free speech protects the ability of citizens to speak and engage in other forms of hate speech without the government banning it. However, it does not protect individuals who engage in hate speech from the consequences of their actions. In other words, there should be no misconception that the Constitution provides a First Amendment right to engage in hate speech and not suffer the potential consequences of being fired for that very speech.  

If you need assistance with an employment issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — July 17, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly Berry

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a retirement savings and investment plan for federal employees and members of the uniformed services. It was established by Congress in 1986 as part of the Federal Employees’ Retirement Systems Act. The TSP offers the same types of savings and tax benefits that a 401(k) plan offers to private sector employees.

In April 2017, on the TSP’s 30-year anniversary, a bill was offered by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) to bring the TSP’s terms more up-to-date with similar programs. Specifically, the legislation seeks to expand investment and withdrawal options. Last week, the Washington Post published a helpful Q&A that provided more details regarding the TSP’s new investment options. For instance, one of the TSP’s five funds, tracking international stocks, will be broadened in 2019 to include emerging markets and Canada. The TSP is also working toward allowing account holders to invest in funds outside of what’s currently offered.

Additional bills pending before Congress also allow for more withdrawal options post-retirement, including for federal workers and servicemen and women still employed and at least 59 ½ years of age. Since current withdrawal options are limited, it is hopeful that these changes will allow participants more flexibility and freedom regarding their retirement savings.

Most TSP issues that we handle in our federal retirement practice involve withdrawal guidelines and requirements, including issues involving federal retirees who are divorced and ordered to divide their retirement benefits, including TSP benefits, with a former spouse. In addition, federal employees and uniformed servicemen and women leaving employment for retirement or other reasons may keep TSP accounts open. However, they cannot add to their TSP accounts post-retirement or separation, but TSP monies can be transferred to an IRA or other tax-favored plans. The transfer rules, including deadlines, can often be complicated and difficult to understand, but we hope that the legislation allowing for additional investment and withdrawal options will help bring more financial stability as well as a better understanding of the rules involving federal retirement plans.

If you need assistance with a federal employment, federal retirement or TSP issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — June 19, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John H. Berry

Many of our clients who are federal employees have been facing difficulties as a result of the hiring freeze enacted by the President in January. While the initial hiring freeze has been rescinded (in part), there are many restrictions still in place. These restrictions have affected our federal employment practice since we often argue for or resolve cases involving changes, transfers, desk audits and promotions. This article covers the latest on the federal employee hiring freeze and where it presently stands.

Background

The federal hiring freeze began on Jan. 23, shortly after the inauguration of the President, and covered most hiring actions for federal employees. This had the unfortunate result of causing many federal employees to take on additional jobs that were previously handled by other employees (who had left) but with no increase in compensation. In many federal agencies, it appears that federal employees are unable to perform their basic work functions given the lack of staffing. The ban was eventually lifted, for the most part, on April 12. Additionally, there has also been a lack of staffing at the appointee levels as the current administration has only appointed one third of the amount of appointees that the previous administration had in place at the same point in time.

Where We Are Now

While the original federal hiring freeze has been lifted for most agencies, some individual agencies have decided to leave the ban in place in order to reduce their number of employees. The somewhat understated goal is to reduce the size of the federal workplace. For example, despite the lifting of the ban, the EPA and Department of State currently still have varying restrictions on hiring new personnel as of right now. Other agencies have not openly continued the hiring freeze but have only been hiring on a limited basis.

In addition, since the lifting of the initial freeze, guidance has been issued intending to restrict hiring of federal employees. Other agencies, like the Department of Defense that lifted the hiring freeze, issued requirements that hiring officials comply with the intent of the OMB memorandum of April 12, which focuses on reducing the numbers of employees for agencies. In getting back to normal, following the freeze, there has also been a significant backlog of background and clearance investigations from dozens of federal departments that need employees. This will slow down the onboarding process for these employees.

We suspect that hiring will eventually increase and the policies will be liberalized somewhat, because even agencies looking to reduce their size and scope have to perform basic functions. We have run across a number of federal supervisors and other employees who have become overburdened to the point that they may leave federal government altogether because they have no assistance and are performing multiple jobs. This will eventually lead to increased hiring. It will also likely take a year in order for the federal government to get back to where it was in staffing and productivity before the change in administrations and the enactment of the hiring freeze.

If you need assistance with a federal employment issue, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — June 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry

Our law firm handles many different types of federal retirement issues in our representation of federal employees. One of the more common types of retirement cases that we often handle involves the representation of federal employees in the disability retirement process before various federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Federal employees filing for disability retirement are typically covered under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).

Federal employees should consider the following questions before they pursue OPM disability retirement:

How serious are the federal employee’s medical issues and are they linked to the federal employee’s position description duties?

When making a disability retirement decision, keep in mind that OPM evaluates your continued ability to work with your medical condition in the context of the duties described in your position description. If the medical disability is not deemed serious enough, or not fully supported by medical documentation and evidence, and is not sufficiently linked to your inability to “usefully and efficiently” carry out your job duties, then OPM may deny the disability retirement application.

How long is the medical disability realistically expected to last?

OPM requires that a medical disability be expected to last at least one year in duration. When considering whether to file for disability retirement, it is important for you to consider the expected duration of your medical disability. Disabilities with known shorter duration could be problematic for you in the application process.

Can a federal employee survive on a reduced annuity?

If you are considering filing for OPM disability retirement, understand that this type of retirement usually provides you with a lower monthly retirement annuity in comparison to full retirement. As a result, we recommend that you obtain benefit estimates from your human resources representative and consult with a financial advisor about the impact of a potential reduced annuity prior to filing for disability retirement.

Are there modifications to a federal employee’s current position that can be made to allow the federal employee to continue to work?

Oftentimes a federal agency will work with you to provide you with a reasonable accommodation (i.e., change in duties, hours, telework or other adjustments) that can make your current position and medical condition workable. This can often be the best solution, even if it is only a short-term solution. As a part of the disability retirement process, the federal agency is required to certify that it is unable to accommodate your disabling medical condition in your present position. The agency must also certify that it has considered you “for any vacant position in the same agency, at the same grade or pay level, and within the same commuting area, for which [you] qualified for reassign­ment.”

Do your medical professionals believe that you should not continue in your current position?

This is an important consideration when filing for disability retirement. In most cases, physicians will be open with their patients about whether it is a good idea to keep working in their current federal employment position. There are at least two reasons to discuss a possible filing for OPM disability retirement with your treating medical provider(s). First, your health should be of primary importance and a consideration when determining whether continuing in a job hinders or impedes your recovery. Second, physicians and their medical opinions are necessary and, in fact, crucial in the disability retirement application process with OPM. OPM will require a physician’s statement about your medical issues, and the physician’s statement can either make or break the outcome of your disability retirement application.

When considering OPM disability retirement, it is important to obtain the advice and representation of legal counsel. You can contact our law firm through www.retirementlaw.com, www.berrylegal.com, or by telephone at 703-668-0070, to schedule a consultation to discuss your individual federal employment retirement matter. Please also visit and like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — May 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm 1 Comment

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry

The following are six tips that can be helpful when an employee in Virginia is facing significant employment issues like termination, discrimination or retaliation.

  • Try to Remain Calm.

It is extremely important that employees remain calm and keep their composure when facing an employment issue. As difficult as it may seem at the time, it is critical to stay calm while at work even when dealing with significant employment issues like termination, separation, or poor performance reviews. Generally, it is not helpful to argue with a supervisor over an employment issue that arises. Doing so can put an employee at risk for discipline, placement on leave, or even retaliation. In addition, employers could contact law enforcement or security if they feel the employee is irate and getting out of control.

  • Avoid Using Social Media to Talk About Employment Issues.

We advise employees not to advertise their employment issues on social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Almost inevitably, when employees discuss their employment issues on social media, one of their “friends” will pass it to someone who then passes it on to the supervisor who was a party to the problem compounding difficulties for the employee at work.

  • Realize that Human Resources Supports Management.

A common misconception is that Human Resources is supposed to be a fair mediator of workplace disputes. This is not the case in 95 percent of employment issues. Human Resources is there to support management’s position in personnel matters. It is important to seek advice elsewhere before reaching out to Human Resources if an employee’s dispute involves a supervisor. HR generally tends to also pass on complaints by employees to supervisors and not treat them confidentially.

  • Don’t Use Your Work Email Account or Computer for Employment Problems.

Employees should not use their employer’s email account to send personal or private information, especially related to their employment problems. We also recommend that employees not use work computers for drafting personal documents, storing pictures or other storage. Otherwise, the information employees store on their work computers can potentially be used against them. It is often very easy to use an employer’s email account or computer for private or workplace issues, but it can hurt an employee’s employment claims later or cause them to be terminated. The employer can potentially claim misuse of a work email account or computer. If an employer begins to suspect problems with an employee, the employer may take steps to review an employee’s email account or computer. Employers also usually archive emails for each employee.

  • Don’t Talk With Co-Workers About Employment Problems.

It is important to be very careful about discussing employment problems with co-workers in the office, even if they are your friends. It is quite common for an employee to tell a co-worker about his or her employment problems with a supervisor, then the co-worker will (even inadvertently) tell another supervisor or other co-workers where it eventually makes its way back to the supervisor involved. This can result in workplace retaliation.

  • If Terminated or Separated, Get Legal Advice Before Signing an Agreement.

If an employee is terminated or separated and is presented with a severance, separation, or other settlement agreement, he or she should consult with an attorney to discuss the rights that he or she may be waiving and the terms of the agreement before signing it.

If you need assistance with employment law matters in Virginia or the District of Columbia, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — May 8, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry, Esq.

The recently enacted D.C. Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act could affect residents in Northern Virginia and other states who work in the District of Columbia. The Act was made applicable to most employers that are required to pay for D.C. unemployment insurance.

The Act, however, does not apply to federal or D.C. public employers. Under the new Act, employees who live in Virginia or Maryland but work in Washington, D.C. will be entitled to the following additional forms of leave:

  1. Up to eight weeks of parental leave;
  2. Up to six weeks of family leave to care for a family member; and
  3. Up to two weeks of medical leave for a serious health condition.

An employee is restricted from taking more than eight weeks of the above-mentioned combined leave in a 52-week period. During such paid leave, an employee will receive up to a maximum of $1,000 per week during the leave period.

Under the Act, an employee has an obligation to notify an employer at least 10 days in advance of the leave (where foreseeable). To receive such leave, an employee is required to submit claims to the D.C. government, which will then notify the employer. The leave benefits above are in addition to, not in lieu of, any currently paid leave benefits by the employer.

Starting July 1, 2019, D.C. employers will begin paying a new payroll tax to fund the program. Employees working in D.C. will be able to access these new benefits beginning July 1, 2020.

There has been some discussion of potential amendments or future changes to the Act, but the provisions have been passed into law. Employers are prohibited from interfering with eligible individuals’ rights for leave under the Act. Additionally, it is unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees for exercising or attempting to exercise their rights under the new Act.

If you need assistance with employment law matters in Virginia or the District of Columbia, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

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by RestonNow.com Sponsor — April 10, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

Legal Insider

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry, Esq.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, most employees are considered “at will,” which means they can resign or be terminated at any time. When employment ends, an employer may offer severance to an employee in exchange for the employee’s waiver of his or her rights, including the right to sue for any work-related issues. In Virginia, in the absence of an employment contract, an employer usually has no obligation to provide an employee severance pay. If severance pay is offered, an employer will provide the employee with a severance agreement.

What is a Severance Agreement?

A severance agreement is a contract between an employee and an employer that specifies the terms of an employment departure. Severance agreements can be offered in cases of terminations, resignations, layoffs and/or retirement. In order for a severance agreement to be valid, it must usually provide something to the employee to which the employee is not already entitled. For example, in most cases, a certain financial sum is provided to the departing employee by an employer in exchange for a waiver of rights, usually referred to as a general release, by the employee.

In addition, in Virginia and many other states, employers are generally required to provide an employee time to consider a severance agreement before signing. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), in part, requires that an employer provide employees over 40 years of age with a 21-day consideration period, or a 45-day consideration period in the case of a large reduction-in-force (RIF), and at least a 7-day revocation period. Oftentimes, employers rush employees to sign a severance agreement and do not adhere to the procedures for severance agreements.

The terms of a severance agreement are generally negotiable between the employer and employee. However, an employee will not necessarily be told this when the employer offers the severance agreement.

Potential Considerations with Severance Agreements

Some of the issues to consider in advance of signing a severance agreement may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Financial terms and timing of severance payments
  • Tax issues
  • Continuation of employment benefits
  • Ability to claim unemployment compensation
  • What claims are waived
  • Confidentiality terms
  • Non-disparagement
  • Re-employment/re-hiring possibilities for departing employee
  • Scope of non-competition after leaving employment
  • Preservation of trade secrets
  • References and points of contact
  • Recommendation letters
  • Consequences of violating the severance agreement

Each case is different and an employee may need legal representation in negotiating a severance agreement. Before an employee signs a severance agreement, he or she should consult with an attorney to discuss the rights that he or she may be waiving and the terms of the severance agreement.

If you need assistance with negotiating a severance agreement in Virginia, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — March 13, 2017 at 4:00 pm 4 Comments

Legal Insider

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

On March 8, Congress moved forward with bill H.R. 1313, sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), to enable employers to obtain genetic information about an applicant or employee.

Presently, genetic testing of employees and prospective employees, on anything other than a voluntary basis, is illegal. Genetic testing of employees currently is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The bill, which was approved by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is part of the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act and would allow employers to impose penalties of up to 30 percent of the total cost of the employee’s health insurance on those who choose to keep such information private from their employer.

Congress enacted GINA to prohibit discrimination by health insurers and employers based on the genetic information that people carry in their DNA. GINA currently contains an exception, however, that allows employees to voluntarily provide their genetic information as part of a voluntary wellness program. If passed, the bill would change the nature of the voluntariness of providing genetic information and make it clear that employers who offer wellness programs, and also require genetic testing as part of these programs, can legally charge workers who refuse to take the genetic test a higher price for health insurance than workers who will.

If enacted by the full House and Senate, H.R. 1313 would effectively repeal the fundamental genetic and health privacy protections in GINA and the ADA. The new provisions would permit employers, under the guise of workplace wellness programs, to ask employees questions about genetic examinations taken by themselves or their families. Further, an employer could make inquiries about the medical history of employees and other family members. GINA’s requirement that employee genetic information collected as part of a wellness plan only be shared with medical professionals would no longer apply. This could open the door to discrimination by employers on the basis of genetic examinations or family histories.

If you need assistance with an employment law issue in Virginia, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — February 27, 2017 at 4:00 pm 0

Legal Insider

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

Virginia employees are protected by Occupational Safety and Health laws from retaliation and discrimination if they report safety and health issues in the workplace.

In Virginia, an employee shall not be discriminated against or terminated in retaliation for filing a safety or health complaint, testifying or exercising a right under Virginia Code Ann. § 40.1-51.2:1 concerning employee safety and health.

Examples Where Law Might Apply

Here are some examples where the Virginia law against retaliation might apply. Keep in mind that this particular Virginia law is focused on dangers reported that could affect an employee or other employees in the workplace.

  1. An employee reports to the fire department that there is a gas leak in the office. The fire department finds the cause of the leak and the employer is required to upgrade the gas lines. The manager gets upset at the cost to fix the leak and fires the employee.
  1. An employee informs her manager that work vehicles are unsafe and not maintained properly. The manager, rather than fix the work vehicles, decides to fire the employee as a means to keep her from complaining or exposing the issues.
  1. An employee reports a severe mold problem in the workplace. As a result, the employer is forced to spend a significant amount of money to fix the mold problem. The Employee is fired as a result of reporting the issue.

Process for Filing a VOSH Complaint

A Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) complaint of retaliation or discrimination must be filed within 60 days of the discriminatory action with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. If not, the complaint is likely to be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Following the filing of a complaint, a VOSH investigator will contact the complainant and/or his/her counsel and will initiate an investigation if all of the requirements for jurisdiction have been met.

An investigation may lead to a settlement for the employee or could lead to sustained findings. There are also civil court remedies for an employee if a sustained violation by the investigator is not found.

If you believe that your employer has treated you differently for reporting a safety and health issue or need assistance with another employment law issue in Virginia, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — February 13, 2017 at 4:00 pm 0

Legal Insider

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

Employees in the Commonwealth of Virginia have a number of forums for potentially filing a sexual harassment complaint. First, employees must determine whether the facts in their case constitute sexual harassment. The general definition of sexual harassment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is that it includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

The harassment victim can be either a woman or a man. Additionally, the harassment victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. That being said, sexual harassment does not always have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s gender/sex. Harassing an individual by making offensive comments about his or her gender can constitute sexual harassment. Additionally, when more minor comments or teasing are made on a continuing basis, a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment can arise. Additional EEOC regulations and guidance on sexual harassment can be viewed here.

Harassment Complaints for Federal Employees in Virginia

For federal employees in Virginia, the usual method of filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint alleging sexual harassment is to go through their federal agency’s EEO office within 45 days of the date of the harassment. This very short deadline can usually be satisfied by initiating contact directly with a federal EEO counselor. Federal agencies will provide contact information for federal EEO complaint counselors to federal employees. The formal complaint process involving the claims of sexual harassment will follow thereafter if the matter is not resolved. There are also other less common routes for filing a federal employee sexual harassment complaint, such as filing a grievance (where permitted, but not usually recommended) and/or a complaint though the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), but these are usually not effective when compared to a federal employee’s options for filing an EEO complaint.

Harassment Complaints for Private Sector Employees in Virginia

For employees who are employed by private companies in Virginia, there are a number of potential options for filing a sexual harassment complaint depending on where they live and the size of their employer. A private sector employee employed by a company with 15 employees or more may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is the most common route for those employed by private companies. The deadline for doing so in Virginia is generally 180 days, which can be extended to 300 days due to a work-sharing agreement between Virginia and the EEOC.

A private sector employee can also usually file a sexual harassment complaint with the Virginia Division of Human Rights (DHR) if their employer has 6 to 14 employees, but less than 15. Additionally, if the matter involves a government contractor, a private sector employee can also file a harassment complaint with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), but this complaint process is rarely used. Lastly, some counties and municipalities in Virginia have enacted harassment ordinances, such as Fairfax County and Arlington County, which also have procedures for filing complaints against employers. The deadlines for county filings can vary between 180 and 365 days depending on the county. In sum, it is important to figure out the correct forum and to file a claim well in advance of any deadlines.

Harassment Complaints for State Employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia

State employees who are employed by the Commonwealth of Virginia have somewhat different sexual harassment complaint options. These include the possibility of filing a complaint with the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Services (OEES) or the EEOC. The current Executive Order governing state employees was issued in 2014.  State employees should consult with an attorney before deciding which forum is best for their sexual harassment complaint.

Harassment Complaints for County and Local Employees in Virginia

Finally, employees of Virginia’s various counties and municipalities also have options for filing a sexual harassment complaint. They may typically file harassment complaints with the EEOC, or if covered by their county or municipality, a local claim. By far, the majority of county employees take their cases to the EEOC and then to the court, if their matter is not resolved.

Talk to an Attorney to Determine the Best Forum

It is very important to speak with an attorney before choosing a forum in which to file a sexual harassment complaint since the correct forum for filing complaints can vary based on the facts of the claim, location and size of the employer, and nature of the employer. If you need assistance with filing a sexual harassment complaint, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also visit and like us on Facebook.

by RestonNow.com Sponsor — January 17, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

Legal Insider

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Plaza America that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

What constitutes hostile work environment is often confusing. Many employees often assume that general bad behavior exhibited by a supervisor or coworker constitutes a hostile work environment claim for purposes of filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint.  

Typically, an EEO complaint based on hostile work environment must involve actions taken as a result of discriminatory behavior. In other words, a hostile work environment involving a supervisor that is petty, obnoxious, mean or otherwise terrible to work for, without the element of discrimination as the basis for the conduct, is not necessarily an actionable EEO hostile work environment case.

In general, employees can and do suffer from an unpleasant work environment for reasons other than unlawful discrimination. While such conduct is inappropriate and unfortunate, it may not provide a basis for an EEO complaint. In order to show a hostile work environment for the purpose of filing an EEO complaint, employees generally need to show that:

  1. The actions taken were discriminatory or harassing against them based on their race, religion, national origin, gender, age, etc.
  2. They were subject to harassment (verbal or physical) as a result of the discrimination.
  3. The discrimination is pervasive. In other words, it persists over time.
  4. The hostile behavior is severe.
  5. The employer knew or should have known about the discriminatory behavior.

Here are a few examples of a hostile work environment:

  1. An employee, who is an older woman, is subject to constant ridicule in the office by her supervisor for work-related mistakes due to her age. Her supervisor often makes comments that “she should retire.” The employee reports the situation to Human Resources, which does not address the issues, and the supervisor continues his/her harassing behavior.
  1. An employee, who is African-American, is subject to repeated offensive racial comments at work by a supervisor in front of other employees. The employee takes the matter to the employer’s president who declines to take action. The supervisor continues his/her discriminatory behavior.  
  1. An employee, who is female, is consistently asked out on dates by a co-worker even though she has politely declined the requests. The employee then begins to receive notes on her office door from the co-worker with inappropriate remarks.  She reports the situation to her manager and Human Resources, which takes no action in the matter, and the harassment continues.

The examples of different types of a hostile work environment are too numerous to cite, but the harassing behavior has to involve discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin or other protected categories. Again, if a supervisor or co-worker is hostile, mean or even engages in bizarre behavior, it may not rise to the level of an actionable EEO hostile work environment case.  

If you need assistance with an employment law issue in Virginia, please contact our office at (703) 668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

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