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Bohac v. Department of Agriculture

    Brief Fact Summary. Janice Bohac (Petitioner) successfully challenged her termination under the Whistleblower Protection Act (Act). She asked for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. The court denied non-pecuniary damages. Petitioner appealed

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Section 1221 of the Whistleblower’s Protection Act does not allow for damages for pain and suffering. The government has not waived its right to sovereign immunity with respect to such claims

    Facts. Petitioner appealed her termination from her job as a research geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture to the Merit Systems Protection Board. She alleged that her termination violated the Act, which was designed to protect government employees from being fired for revealing embarrassing information about the department that employs them.
    Petitioner asked for $14,021.32 for pecuniary damages and was awarded this amount.
    Petitioner asked for $150,000.00 non-pecuniary damages for emotional and physical suffering, loss to her personal and professional reputation, and damage to her family life.
    The Administrative Judge for the Merit Systems Protection Board, who heard her appeal denied Petitioner’s claim for non-pecuniary damages. He interpreted the relevant section in the Act to not include non-pecuniary damages.
    Petitioner appealed to the full board, which also denied her claim for non-pecuniary damages.

    Issue. Should the Merit Systems Protection Board’s decision not to award non-pecuniary damages to Petitioner stand?

    Held. Yes
    The relevant section of the Act states that a wrongfully discharged petitioner may recover “back pay and related benefits, medical costs incurred, travel expenses, and any other reasonable and foreseeable consequential changes.” 5 U.S.C. Section: 1221(g)(A)
    In common law, damages are usually not awarded for emotional distress except in special circumstances when the case involves innkeepers, common carriers, or for importer disposition of a dead body, none of which are relevant here.
    Recent case law concerning wrongful termination, occasionally awarded damages for emotional distress, but this does not establish a strong enough pattern.
    If Congress had intended for petitioners to received non-pecuniary damages under the Act, they would have used the words “compensatory damages”

    Discussion. The court established that situations when breach of contract cases can result in damages for emotional distress are specific and narrowly drawn, and applies this concept to the interpretation of the federal statute. Overall, the court upholds the common law concept that damages for breach of contract do not include damages for emotional distress.


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