WASHINGTON -- A federal board has again ordered the U.S. Postal Service to reinstate a National Guardsman wrongly fired from his job as a postal worker because he took military leave, telling the agency to pay him what could add up to millions in back pay, benefits and legal fees. On Monday, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which rules on disputed federal personnel actions, reiterated that the decision in 2000 to fire Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson, now 50, violated federal laws designed to protect troops' civilian jobs. The board made a similar ruling in 2012 and ordered the Postal Service to immediately reinstate Erickson, a decorated long-time Special Forces member, even if it planned to appeal. But the Postal Service appealed the ruling without reinstating Erickson.
On Monday, the board also declared that a Postal Service argument that Erickson was not entitled to back pay and benefits because he did not meet a deadline to request reemployment was invalid because he had already been wrongly fired. According to the ruling, which the board described as its "final decision," the Postal Service has 20 days to reinstate Erickson and 60 days to provide back pay since 2000, plus interest and benefits. The Postal Service must also report back to the Merit Systems Protection Board and describe how it has carried out the actions, the ruling said. Erickson's attorney, Matthew Estes of the law firm Tully Rinckey, said that his client hopes the ongoing battle with the Postal Service -- which has included numerous rulings from the Merit System Protection Board as well as a federal court -- is over. "As far as we're concerned, this is the end of the road and we're finally done," he said. Estes said the law firm has not yet made a precise calculation of what Erickson is owed, but said that with more than a decade of back pay, lost benefits and attorney fees, it could exceed $2 million. Postal Service spokeswoman Darlene Casey said Friday she could not comment on the ruling or how the Postal Service planned to react. "It is inappropriate for us to comment at this time, as litigation is ongoing and appeals are possible," Casey said. Erickson, who served with the 3rd Special Forces Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group at the time of his firing, has been battling for reinstatement for years. He was hired in 1988 by the Postal Service and joined the National Guard in 1990, he said. He missed several years of work because of military service, but never surpassed the five-year limit established by the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Nevertheless, the Postal Service argued he had abandoned his job. Erickson, who is now active duty and works for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., was on an operation with the Special Forces when he received a letter informing him that he'd been fired. "I thought it was a joke at first," he said. "Here I am doing my call to duty -- what I'm required to do because I'm in the military -- and they fire me for it." He said he knows other soldiers who have illegally lost jobs because of the obligations of military service, and said he hopes Monday's ruling encourages them to fight back. And he hopes it serves as a warning to employers not inclined to follow the law. Erickson, who said he has been fortunate to have the Army to support his family after losing his post office job, isn't sure he wants to go back to a civilian job working for the agency that threw him out of a job and worked to keep him gone even though he's entitled to it. "It's a shame," he said. "You go over there and fight the enemy, then you come back here and have to fight your employer for your job."