Daniel Metcalfe, Adjunct Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ.)
The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to pay $572,000 to settle a dispute over allegations that department officials illegally screened job applicants based on their political ideology.
The two remaining plaintiffs in the case will receive $50,000 and $2,000, respectively. The bulk of the settlement, $520,000, covers attorney fees and costs for the plaintiffs’ attorney, Daniel Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law.
The parties filed notice Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that they were dismissing the case.
“This was a long, hard-fought battle for vindication of my clients’ belief that they were victimized by a corrupt hiring scheme at the highest levels of the Department of Justice-something for which there ought to be a remedy at law,” Metcalfe said.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said in an email that department officials were “pleased this matter is resolved.” Under the terms of the settlement, the department did not admit liability.
The plaintiffs were unsuccessful applicants to the Justice Department’s highly competitive Honors Program in 2006. They sued the government in Washington federal district court in 2008 following the release of an internal DOJ report finding top officials impermissibly relied on political or ideological information about applicants.
In 2010, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during a deposition he was “disappointed” he didn’t stop political affiliations from being part of the Honors Program hiring process.
Metcalfe said he became involved in the case because one of the original plaintiffs, Sean Gerlich, is a relative. Only two plaintiffs, not including Gerlich, were left in the case after U.S. District Judge John Bates, the judge previously handling the matter, dismissed a number of claims and found that some plaintiffs lacked standing.
Under the settlement, plaintiff Matthew Faiella will receive $50,000, which Metcalfe said reflected the fact that he took a job following his rejection that paid less than he would have earned at the Justice Department. The other plaintiff, Daniel Herber, who Metcalfe said ended up earning more in private practice than he would have at the department, will receive $2,000.
The case arose “from a dark chapter in the United States Department of Justice’s history,” Bates said in a 2011 opinion. Bates dismissed the lawsuit after finding the plaintiffs couldn’t prove they were directly harmed by alleged violations of the federal Privacy Act by Justice Department officials.
In March 2013, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that given the department’s destruction of records related to the case, a jury should be allowed to hear evidence on whether the remaining plaintiffs were “harmed by creation and use of the destroyed records.”
Settlement talks began soon after the D.C. Circuit’s decision, according to Metcalfe. “They took a long period of time because it involved not only the determination of damages for the clients, but also the matter of attorney fees and costs,” he said.
The attorney fees were calculated under the Laffey Matrix, the standardized schedule used to determine fee amounts. The final amount covered less time than Metcalfe said he spent on the case, but he added it was more than he expected to get under an agreement.
“I certainly never initiated this case for purposes of attorney fees or with attorney fees in mind,” he said.