VITARELLI V. SEATON, 359 U. S. 535 (1959)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Vitarelli v. Seaton, 359 U.S. 535 (1959)

Vitarelli v. Seaton

No. 101

Argued April 1-2, 1959

Decided June 1, 1959

359 U.S. 535


Petitioner was an employee of the Department of the Interior in a position not designated as "sensitive." He was not a veteran, had no protected Civil Service status, and could have been discharged summarily without cause. Purporting to proceed under the Act of August 26, 1950, Executive Order No. 10450, and departmental regulations prescribing the procedure to be followed in "security risk" cases, the Secretary suspended him and served him with written charges that his "sympathetic association" with Communists or Communist sympathizers, and other similar alleged activities, tended to show that his continued employment might be "contrary to the best interests of national security." At a subsequent hearing before a security hearing board, no evidence was adduced in support of these charges and no witness testified against petitioner, but he and four witnesses who testified for him were subjected to an extensive cross-examination which went far beyond the activities specified in the charges. Subsequently, he was sent a notice of dismissal, effective September 10, 1954, "in the interest of national security" and for the reasons set forth in the charges. In 1956, he sued for a declaratory judgment that his discharge was illegal and an injunction directing his reinstatement. While the case was pending, a copy of a "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 court, and a copy was delivered to petitioner. This notification was identical with one issued September 1, 1954, except that it omitted any reference to the reason for petitioner's discharge and to the authority under which it was carried out.

Held: Petitioner's dismissal was illegal, and he is entitled to reinstatement. Pp. 359 U. S. 536-546.

(a) Having chosen to proceed against petitioner on security grounds, the Secretary was bound by the regulations which he had promulgated for dealing with such cases, even though petitioner could have been discharged summarily and without cause independently of those regulations. Pp. 359 U. S. 539-540.

Page 359 U. S. 536

(b) The record shows that the proceedings leading to petitioner's dismissal from Government service on grounds of national security violated petitioner's procedural rights under the applicable departmental regulations. Therefore, his dismissal was illegal, and of no effect. Pp. 359 U. S. 540-545.

(c) Delivery to petitioner in 1956 of the revised "notification of personnel action" dated September 21, 1954, which was plainly intended only as a grant of relief to petitioner by expunging the grounds of the 1954 discharge, cannot be treated as an exercise of the Secretary's summary dismissal power as of the date of its delivery to petitioner. Pp. 359 U. S. 545-546.

(d) Petitioner is entitled to reinstatement, subject to any lawful exercise of the Secretary's authority hereafter to dismiss him from employment. P. 359 U. S. 546.

102 U.S.App.D.C. 316, 253 F.2d 338, reversed.

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