Q & A Session – Adequate Housing
Ask the Lawyer received the following question (paraphrased for easier reading and clarity) from a reader on a legal matter that might be of interest to the entire audience.
I accepted a one year contract to work for a federal agency in a very remote area. I am currently working under that contract. Before agreeing to the offered terms, I was given a tour of a home which was safe and acceptable to me. However, after I signed the contract, I was placed in very different housing – a forty-year-old trailer. The roof and some pipes leak, there is no insulation, pipes often freeze and there is mold in the trailer. I am told that another home is not available and the problems cannot be repaired. Furthermore, the closest accessible medical or dental care is a ninety-minute drive away.
I feel as though I have been misled and I want to resign. However, I am worried that I would have to pay back my bonus and relocation expenses. Can you provide any guidance on this matter?
The Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office has issued guidance relevant to your situation. Using GAO’s decision in the Matter of: Shirley Oliviera – Reimbursement for Commercial Lodgings, it appears that the officials in charge of determining whether the provided housing is adequate have broad discretion in determining that adequacy. In Oliviera, an employee’s lodging was not determined to be inadequate by housing officials because heat and water were unavailable for a period of several days, and the GAO accepted those findings. However, the GAO also stated that if such major problems persisted over a long period of time, a basis may exist to determine that government lodgings were inadequate.
While the agency has informed you that it is unable to provide new lodging or fix the current problems, it is unclear whether they have found the lodging to be adequate. If the housing is inadequate, you might be able to seek reimbursement for other lodging arrangements.
You probably cannot retain your signing bonus if you resign, unless a provision in your employment contract allows you to if the agency fails to adequately meet its obligations, such as providing adequate housing. Furthermore, Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 302-3.506 states that an employee who does not complete the terms of his or her service is indebted to the government, though if the reasons for terminating the agreement are beyond the employee’s control, the debt may be waived. You would have to discuss such a waiver with your employer.
Finally, I do not believe that the difficulty in accessing medical or dental facilities would be a relevant issue here. When you moved to a remote area, you could have reasonably foreseen that some facilities would not be located close by, and no one misled you about the availability of medical or dental services.
Bill Bransford is managing partner of Shaw, Bransford & Roth, PC.
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