The Court imposed a sentence upon Mrs. Garner which included restitution of the monies she had received. She returned over half of the money, and executed a judgment note in favor of Metropolitan for the unpaid balance. (See Answer and Counterclaim of Metropolitan, paras. 36 and 37, and Ex. A., attached thereto).
The plaintiff, subsequent to both her husband's death and her conviction had, as the government describes it, the "audacity" to file another claim for FEGLI benefits based upon her husband's legitimate death. Mrs. Garner's claim, understandably, caused much confusion among the Navy, OPM and OFEGLI as to how to respond. OPM, on May 2, 1984, notified OFEGLI that Mr. Garner was not covered by the FEGLI plan and that no payments should be made to his widow. (See deposition of James C. Bush, Ex. 9). OPM, according to the government's memorandum, informed the Navy, as the deceased's employing agency, of its determination on May 14, 1984. Ironically, when the Navy reinstated Garner, it reinstated the same amount of life insurance coverage he had carried when he disappeared and, in fact, made appropriate deductions from his salary for such coverage. (See deposition of James C. Bush, Exs. 5, 6 and 7).
Regardless of OPM's instructions to the contrary, the Navy issued an "Agency Certification of Insured Status" to the plaintiff on July 17, 1984.
(See deposition of James C. Bush, Ex. 8). Nevertheless, OFEGLI continued to deny Mrs. Garner's claim based upon OPM's determination that her husband was not a covered employee. (See deposition of James C. Bush, Exs. 9 and 10). Mrs. Garner, in response, instituted this action seeking payment of the benefits claimed to be due her and recovery of the consequential damages she has allegedly suffered as a result of the defendants' denial of her claim.
The sole issue is whether, at the time of his death on November 13, 1983, Bernard R. Garner was covered by FEGLI.
More specifically, we must decide whether, as the government argues, Mr. Garner was excluded from such coverage as "an employee whose employment (was) of uncertain or purely temporary duration . . ." under 5 U.S.C. § 8716 and 5 CFR § 870.202(a)(2).
Congress, when it enacted the relevant statutes, 5 U.S.C. § 8701, et seq., to provide federal employees with group life insurance, bestowed wide latitude upon OPM to promulgate regulations to administer the Program. See 5 U.S.C. § 8716. Pursuant to this authority, OPM promulgated 5 CFR § 870.202(a)(2), the regulation upon which it relies as authority for denial of the plaintiff's claim. The government argues OPM's interpretation of § 870.202(a)(2) must be given great deference, and even controlling weight, since the construction originated with a high-ranking agency official, i.e., OPM's Associate Director for Compensation.
The record discloses, however, that all such interpretations occurred after the plaintiff had asserted her claim.
The rules of administrative law regarding the deference a court should give to an agency's construction of its regulations are well-settled. It is indeed true that an agency's interpretation of the statutes it administers and the regulations promulgated pursuant to such statutes are entitled to deference by a court reviewing an agency action. Further, the degree of such deference is directly proportional to the complexity of the statutes and regulations involved based upon the expertise developed by the agency in administering the statutes and regulations. Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 85 S. Ct. 792, 13 L. Ed. 2d 616 (1965), and Butler County Memorial Hospital v. Heckler, 780 F.2d 352 (3d Cir. 1985). Few of these principles apply to this action however. The statutory and regulatory scheme involved is not complex and is, in fact, relatively simple. OPM's interpretation of § 870.202(a)(2), in addition, was not a contemporaneous or prior construction, but rather, occurred well after this situation developed. As recognized by the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals:
deference to an agency's 'interpretation', . . . is not a hard and fast rule. The weight to be given to an administrative interpretation depends upon 'the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements and all those factors which give it power to persuade if lacking power to control '. Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140, 65 S. Ct. 161, 164, 89 L. Ed. 124, 129 (1944).
Standard Oil Co. v. Department of Energy, 596 F.2d 1029, 1056 (Temp. Em. Court of Appeals 1978). For these reasons, we find OPM's construction of § 870.202(a)(2) is not entitled to controlling weight. Nevertheless, it is not the role of this Court to impose its own construction of § 870.202(a)(2) upon OPM, and we must defer to its interpretation of the section so long as it is reasonable. The reasonableness of the agency's interpretation is based on an analysis of whether its construction "is within the range of reasonable meanings that the words of the regulation admit". Butler County Memorial Hospital v. Heckler, 780 F.2d 352, 356, quoting Psychiatric Institute of Washington, D.C., Inc. v. Schweiker, 216 U.S. App. D.C. 14, 669 F.2d 812, 813-14 (D.C. Cir. 1981) (per curiam). In this regard, "we need not defer to the agency . . . if its interpretation is plainly inconsistent with the wording of the regulation or otherwise deprives (the) affected parties of fair notice of the agency's intentions". Silvis v. Heckler, 578 F. Supp. 1401, 1403 (W.D. Pa. 1984).
Webster's defines "uncertain" as "1: indefinite, indeterminate. 2: not certain to occur. 3: not reliable. 4a: not known beyond doubt. b: not having certain knowledge. c: not clearly identified or defined. 5: not constant". Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1975. The same source defines "temporary" as "lasting for a limited time". Id. Based upon these definitions of the terms uncertain and temporary, we find OPM's construction of § 870.202(a)(2) is completely within the range of reasonable meanings which may logically and reasonably be drawn from the words of the regulation. Similarly, we cannot agree with the plaintiff's argument that OPM's application of the regulation is plainly inconsistent with the wording of § 870.202(a)(2) or otherwise deprives her of fair notice that it could be so applied.
We are not dealing with a dedicated federal employee who had continually served at his post without interruption, but had been served with a notice of termination for some other cause, e.g., incompetence. We are dealing with a situation involving an employee who had abandoned his position, and thus had not served at his post without interruption, but was reinstated so he could be formally terminated. Based on these facts, we believe the deceased's reinstatement, i.e., his employment, was of the uncertain or temporary duration described in § 870.202(a)(2) as construed by OPM.
Our task is to determine whether OPM's interpretation of § 870.202(a)(2) is unreasonable. We find that it is not. The plaintiff has failed to persuade us that the words of the regulation should be given other than their ordinary meaning. See Chrobak v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 517 F.2d 883 (7th Cir. 1975).
The next step in our analysis is to determine whether OPM's application of § 870.202(a)(2) to the deceased is prohibited by its failure to consult with Mr. Garner's employing agency, i.e., the Navy, as required by 5 U.S.C. § 8716(b).
The statutory scheme involved grants OPM plenary authority to promulgate regulations to administer the Program. The statute does not condition this authority upon such a consultation. Thus, while an employing agency may disapprove of the proposed regulation, such disapproval does not prohibit OPM from implementing the regulation. The employing agency, in other words, does not possess a veto power over OPM. We believe the statute provides for such a consultation merely as a device for insuring the orderly operation of government, and not as a means for an employing agency to override OPM. Therefore, we do not believe OPM is prohibited from applying § 870.202(a)(2) to the deceased due to its failure to consult as prescribed by § 8716(b).
For the reasons stated above, we grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment and deny the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment.
An appropriate order follows.
AND NOW, this 8th day of April, 1986, IT IS ORDERED that the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment is DENIED. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED and judgment is ENTERED in favor of the defendant, United States Office of Personnel Management, and against the plaintiff.