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Cloonan v. United States Postal Service

U.S. Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

December 23, 1998


Before Newman, Circuit Judge, Friedman, Senior Circuit Judge, and Michel, Circuit Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam.


The decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board ("Board"), Docket No. PH-0752-95-0198-I-4, affirming the United States Postal Service's decision to place the appellant Michael J. Cloonan on enforced leave as psychiatrically unfit for duty, is affirmed.



The Postal Service notified Cloonan that it proposed to place him on enforced leave because psychiatric reports by two physicians indicated that he "is no longer psychiatrically fit for duty as a postal service carrier or clerk, or in any situation in which close interpersonal contact is necessary for the job." The agency's notice stated that Cloonan's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Norris, had been given a copy of the reports and that although Dr. Norris had "responded to these medical documents by alleging that the appellant was fit for duty, he did not provide a full and clear explanation as to why he believed that appellant was able to resume his duties." The agency further noted that "neither Dr. Norris or the appellant provided any acceptable medical documentation demonstrating that the appellant had received appropriate medical treatment, or, that his current medical condition was resolved."

Cloonan responded to the notice by requesting additional information, citing a letter from Dr. Norris that he asserted proved his fitness for duty and, subsequently, requesting additional time to reply. The Postal Service provided certain of the requested information, explained that other material was not available (but told Cloonan how to obtain it), and granted him additional time to respond. Cloonan told the Postal Service that he could not respond due to the lack of the requested information. After further correspondence, the Postal Service placed Cloonan on enforced leave because he was not fit for duty. The agency granted Cloonan's request for 160 hours of sick leave and to provide the forms for applying for disability retirement and disability benefits.

Cloonan appealed to the Board and requested a hearing. The administrative Judge originally scheduled one, but then canceled it because Cloonan "refused, despite a number of warnings, to cooperate in either the discovery process or the prehearing process." In a detailed initial decision, which became final when the full Board denied review, the administrative Judge affirmed the Postal Service's placement of Cloonan on enforced leave.

The administrative Judge discussed at length a report written "by Dr. Wettstein of the University of Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic after a psychiatric evaluation of the appellant." The administrative Judge stated:

"Dr. Wettstein noted that personality disorders are fairly common and do not ordinarily render an individual unfit for duty. However, Dr. Wettstein opined that the appellant's personality disorder was so severe that it rendered him unfit for duty, not only at his former place of employment, but at any facility to which he could be transferred. Dr. Wettstein specifically noted that the appellant's personality disorders are so severe that they render him unfit to perform duties in any situation in which close interpersonal contact is necessary for the accomplishment of job duties. In reaching these Conclusions, Dr. Wettstein considered the circumstances that the appellant had threatened violence in the past, had brought weapons in his vehicle to work, continued to have weapons at home, and, most significantly, continued to voice profound feeling of retribution and vengefulness against others. Dr. Wettstein opined that these factors represented a high risk of violence and rendered him unfit for duty."

The administrative Judge referred to, but found unpersuasive, notes from Dr. Norris, indicating that Cloonan "was able to return to work." The administrative Judge stated:

"Ordinarily, the opinion of an individual's treating physician is entitled to a good deal of weight. However, in the instant case, I find that the opinions of Dr. Norris are not only sparse and conclusary, but are also lacking the detailed information, including test reports and other objective medical evidence to which he, as the appellant's treating physician, should have access. More importantly, I find that the opinions and representations of Dr. Norris, particularly, in the February 8, 1994, letter are more consistent with those of an advocate in a personnel case than with a medical professional. Specifically, Dr. Norris comments on legal matters and also on which job assignments are appropriate for the appellant."


In his appeal Cloonan mainly repeats the arguments he made to the Board. He apparently contends that his medical evidence established that he was fit to work and that the Board improperly denied him a hearing. He also raises other factual and legal issues relating to the proceedings before the Postal Service and the Board.

As an appellate court, we do not ourselves decide the case anew. Our role is much more limited: we may reverse a Board decision only "if it is was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law; procedurally deficient; or unsupported by substantial evidence." Frederick v. Department of Justice, 73 F. 3d 349, 351 (Fed. Cir. 1996). We cannot so characterize the Board's decision here.

In the present case, the medical evidence dealing with whether Cloonan's psychiatric problems made him unfit for duty was in conflict. As set forth above, the administrative Judge carefully reviewed that evidence and explained why the submission of Cloonan's treating psychiatrist that Cloonan could return to work was unpersuasive. We cannot say that substantial evidence does not support that ruling or the Board's Conclusion that in view of the concern that Cloonan's "personality disorder could lead to violence," the Postal Service's placing Cloonan "in an enforced leave status was reasonable under the circumstances of this case." Cloonan's other contentions likewise would not warrant our rejecting the Board's decision.


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