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Watts v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

December 8, 2017

CYPRUS A. WATTS, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Cyprus Watts was "separated"-that is, discharged-from the United States Army in August 2008 after she tested positive for marijuana. Upon separation from the Army, Ms. Watts received a discharge characterized as "General under Honorable Conditions" (as opposed to the more favorable "Honorable" characterization) and was assigned a reentry code of "4" (that is, ineligible for reenlistment). Plaintiff maintains that the Army separated her without considering her potential for rehabilitation, in violation of the Army's own regulations. She alleges that her discharge characterization and reentry code have resulted in hardship, including rendering her ineligible for education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill Act of 1984 ("GI Bill") and compromising her ability to find work in military logistics, her field of training. Plaintiff sought relief, in the form of an upgrade of her discharge characterization and a modification of her reentry code, from the Army Discharge Review Board and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records ("ABCMR, " or the "Board"). In a series of decisions, both boards ultimately concluded that her discharge was proper and denied her requests.

         Plaintiff brings this action challenging the decision of the ABCMR under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). According to Plaintiff, the Army failed to follow its own regulations when it discharged her without considering her potential for rehabilitation, and she contends that the ABCMR abused its discretion when it approved the circumstances of her discharge. The Government denies that the Army disregarded its regulations and argues that the ABCMR was justified in approving her discharge. In support, the United States notes the required presumption that military officers discharge their duties correctly, lawfully, and in good faith. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment [13] [15]. For the reasons stated below, the court grants Plaintiff's motion and denies the Government's motion.


         The court takes the following facts from the certified copy of the administrative record that the Government has provided. (See Cert. Copy of Admin. Rec. [12] (hereinafter "AR").) Plaintiff enlisted in the Army in July 2005 at the age of 21. (Id. at 55.) She served for six months in Iraq, from February to September 2006, and received a number of medals recognizing her service, including the Army Commendation Medal for exceptionally meritorious service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Id. at 55, 131-32, 224.) Both before and after her term in Iraq, Plaintiff was stationed at Fort Hood, where she worked as a unit supply specialist. (Id. at 55.)

         Things did not go well for Plaintiff after her tour in Iraq. Approximately fourteen months after her return to Fort Hood, Plaintiff married a man who abused her emotionally and physically over the course of their marriage. (Id. at 56.) For example, Plaintiff recalls an incident in January 2008 when her husband drove a car toward her before braking and allowing the car to roll into her. (Id. at 62.) During another incident that month, he allegedly pinned Plaintiff to the ground, tore her pants, and "roughed up" her hair, then broke a window in the house and kicked down the front door after Plaintiff attempted to lock him out. (Id.) A few months later, on April 16, 2008, multiple witnesses saw Plaintiff's husband pick her up and pin her to the ground during an argument. (Id. at 194, 197, 200.) Plaintiff's husband suffered a bloody nose as a result of the altercation, and after being escorted to the police station following the incident, he reported that Plaintiff had assaulted him. (Id. at 157, 175.) Plaintiff was taken to the police station, where she admitted having struck her husband on the nose. (Id. at 175.) When Plaintiff returned home the following day, it appeared that her husband had urinated on her clothes, and in the course of an ensuing argument, Plaintiff poured dish detergent on him. (Id. at 167-68.) Plaintiff's husband was ultimately charged in federal court with assault and destruction of property. (Id. at 65-67.) He pleaded guilty to two counts of assault arising out of the January incidents, and was sentenced to three days in prison and one year of probation. (Id. at 69-70.)

         Approximately three weeks after the April altercation, on May 5, 2008, Plaintiff tested positive for marijuana in a routine urinalysis. (Id. at 160.) According to Plaintiff, her husband continued to abuse her after this positive test. She alleges that on May 18, 2008, he punched her in the face while she was driving, continued to beat her as she attempted to flee, and ultimately raped her in the car's backseat. (Id. at 56.) Yet another incident occurred, as well, but Plaintiff was reluctant to report it, and the police allegedly discouraged her from filing a report against her husband with them. (Id. at 56-57.) She ultimately filed a confidential report that would not result in a notification to her unit supervisors. (Id. at 57.)

         According to Plaintiff, at the time that the Army initiated disciplinary and separation proceedings against her for marijuana use, she had already begun taking steps to treat her mental health and substance abuse problems. On July 2, 2008, Plaintiff received a "Developmental Counseling Form" from the Army. (Id. at 158.) Among other things, the form notified her that separation proceedings would be initiated against her and that she would be enrolled in the Army Substance Abuse Program and subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (Id. at 159.) On July 11, the Army began a non-judicial proceeding to determine whether Plaintiff should be punished for wrongfully using marijuana, striking her husband's nose, and pouring dishwashing detergent on him. (Id. at 156-57.) The proceeding concluded three days later and resulted in a reduction of Plaintiff's military grade, a loss of pay, and extra duty. (Id. at 156.)

         Plaintiff completed the required Army Substance Abuse Program on July 10. In addition to her participation in that mandatory program, Plaintiff maintains that she made significant voluntary efforts at rehabilitation, including pursuing treatment for the mental health conditions that may have contributed to her decision to use marijuana. Those efforts included attending individual therapy sessions and group therapy sessions for victims of domestic violence. (Id. at 57, 81.) A counselor from the group sessions reported that she believed Plaintiff was "redeemable and that it would be a shame to see her separate from the Army." (Id. at 86.) The counselor also reported that Plaintiff had "good insight" and had attended the group session regularly, appearing "to really work at trying to get something out of her groups." (Id.) In addition to attending therapy sessions, Plaintiff began taking the prescription antidepressant Celexa to treat her anxiety and depression. (Id. at 81, 141.) To address her substance abuse problem specifically, Plaintiff attended both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Although she did not have an alcohol dependence, Plaintiff attended the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly-nearly every day from early June until mid-July, when her assigned extra duty limited her ability to attend-because she felt more comfortable expressing herself at those meetings. (Id. at 57.) Plaintiff wrote a letter, dated August 8, 2008, to justify her retention in the Army. (Id. at 141.) In the letter, Plaintiff acknowledged that "turning to drug use to solve or to cover up [her] emotional problems was the completely wrong thing to do." (Id.) She also recounted the steps she had taken to rehabilitate herself and stated her belief that those efforts would "ensure that [she would] never be in th[at] situation again." (Id.)

         The day before Plaintiff sent the letter seeking retention, she received a notice of separation from her commanding officer, Captain Kristin Doneth. (Id. at 143-48.) A memorandum accompanying the notice informed Plaintiff that Captain Doneth would be recommending that Plaintiff be separated from the Army for her abuse of illegal drugs and that she be issued a “General Under Honorable Conditions” discharge. (Id. at 146.) An attached form filled out by Captain Doneth included the following sections:

j. Description of rehabilitative attempts, if applicable: Solider was enrolled in the ASAP program [Army Substance Abuse Program] and completed the program on 10 July 2008.
o. Statement why the commander does not consider it feasible or appropriate to accomplish other disposition: Soldier has tested positive for illegal substance which is not compatible with continued military service.

(Id. at 144.) Captain Doneth's supervisor approved the recommendation (id. at 140), and on August 14, 2008, Colonel Lawrence Phelps also approved the recommendation and directed that Plaintiff be separated from the Army and issued a ”General Under Honorable Conditions” discharge. (Id. at 139.)

         In June 2010, the Army Discharge Review Board determined that Plaintiff had been properly discharged and denied her request for a change in the character of her discharge. (Id. at 120.) Plaintiff then petitioned the ABCMR, seeking an upgrade of her discharge characterization, a modification of her reentry code, and a corrected record of her service, including a complete list of the military awards she had received. (Id. at 115.) The ABCMR determined that certain awards should be added to Plaintiff's record but otherwise recommended that her request be denied, and the Army approved the Board's recommendation in January 2011. (Id. at 114, 119.) In 2013, the ABCMR determined that Plaintiff's request for reconsideration of its 2011 decision was untimely, and Plaintiff sought judicial review in this court. (Id. at 92); Watts v. United States, Case No. 15 C 8694 (N.D. Ill) (Darrah, J.). That lawsuit ended when the court granted the parties' joint motion for remand to the ABCMR. (AR at 89.) On remand, Plaintiff again requested an upgrade of her discharge characterization and a modification ...

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