Office of Personnel Management v. Richmond

PETITIONER: Office of Personnel Management
RESPONDENT: Charles Richmond
LOCATION: Naval Base San Diego

DOCKET NO.: 88-1943
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 496 US 414 (1990)
ARGUED: Feb 21, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 11, 1990
GRANTED: Oct 02, 1989

Gill Deford - on behalf of the Respondent
Kenneth W. Starr - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Charles Richmond worked as a welder at the Navy Public Works Center in San Diego, California until 1981, when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) approved his application to for a disability retirement. OPM determined that Richmond’s poor eyesight prevented him from performing his job and entitled him to receive the benefits for disabled federal employees who have completed five years of service. Before 1982, an individual was ineligible for disability benefits if, in each of the two succeeding calendar years, the individual earns at least 80 percent of the current pay of the position occupied immediately prior to retirement. In 1982, this requirement was amended so that an individual becomes ineligible if he earns at least 80 percent of the pay of the previous position in any succeeding calendar year. Until 1985, Richmond worked part time and his earnings were low enough to keep him eligible for disability benefits. In 1985, he had the opportunity to earn more money, so he contacted OPM to make sure he would remain eligible. OPM provided him with the old requirements but not the new ones. Richmond subsequently accepted overtime work, earned more, and became ineligible for disability benefits. He lost six months of disability pay.

Richmond appealed the denial of benefits to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and argued that the fact that he received incorrect information from OPM prevented them from denying his benefits. The MSPB denied Richmond’s appeal for review. Richmond appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which reversed the decision.


Does receipt of erroneous information from a government employee entitle a claimant to benefits he would not otherwise receive?

Media for Office of Personnel Management v. Richmond

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 21, 1990 in Office of Personnel Management v. Richmond

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 88-1943, Office of Personnel Management v. Charles Richmond.

General Starr.

Kenneth W. Starr:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is an estoppel case.

The issue is whether the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the Civil Service Disability Retirement System, is estopped from applying and enforcing a statute passed by Congress on account of misinformation, misinformation provided both orally and in writing in the form of an outdated OPM form, which was furnished and provided to Mr. Richmond in San Diego by Navy civilian personnel.

It is our position that the court of appeals erred in applying estoppel over Judge Mayer's dissent.

But more than that, it is the submission of the United States that estoppel does not and indeed properly cannot run against the government in the execution of laws passed by Congress.

Indeed, for almost two centuries this Court was clear and emphatic that the government, acting as it must through its employees and agents, cannot be estopped from asserting its rights and executing the law, subject always to the overriding demands of the Constitution.

Across the judicial generations beginning with Chief Justice Marshall's Court in 1813 in Lee against Monroe and Thornton; in the wake of the Civil War in 1868 in the Floyd Acceptances case; the turn of the century in Pine River Logging Company; at the close of World War I in Utah Power and Light; and in more modern times, Justice Douglas' opinion for the Court in United States against Stewart; and Justice Frankfurter's opinion in what has become viewed as the seminal case in this area, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation against Merrill.

Through all these generations, the Court was clear and it was consistent that in the execution of public law the government, in contrast to a private party, cannot be estopped.

And in our view there are powerful reasons, both legal and practical, why this historic principle is sound.

The legal reasons are found in basic principles of democratic theory, and the very nature of our system of divided powers among co-equal branches.

As this Court held in INS against Hibi, and then reiterated less than two years ago in INS v. Pangilinan, estoppel, a venerable judge-made doctrine, cannot override a public policy established by Congress.

That is our first point and it's our most fundamental.

That it is the primacy of the elected branches in our representative democracy in establishing the law that renders estoppel against the government inappropriate.

This basic principle of our government of the responsibility of Congress, consistent with the Presentment Clause, to enact laws that bind the people--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

May I ask a question about your theory?

I suppose it might be possible for the Executive Branch to deliberately try to thwart the policies set by Congress, for example, in a benefit program, if the Executive thought that program was unwise and unfortunate and, therefore, in their policy they would just make it a policy not to tell people about deadlines, or do anything they could to discourage people from taking advantage of the program Congress has set up.

Now, under your theory, no estoppel is possible.

And yet under those circumstances the Executive would be thwarting the will of Congress.

Kenneth W. Starr:

--Under those circumstance I would quite agree that the Executive would be actively seeking to subvert the will of Congress.

That was the view of several--

But there would still be no estoppel.

Kenneth W. Starr:


In our view there would still be no estoppel.

In fact, that was the view of several members of this Court in the Hibi case.

That the Executive was deliberately not carrying out the will of Congress.

And yet this Court determined that estoppel should not lie.

And there is a reason for that.

If, in contrast to the run-of-the-mill case... and we believe this is, while very unfortunate for Mr. Richmond, a run-of-the-mill case of error... of what Justice Frankfurter in Merrill called "ignorant innocence".