AG's office appeals decision by ALJ to reinstate Chief Customs Officer
The Attorney General’s office is appealing the decision by Administrative Law Judge Toetagata Albert Mailo to reinstate Chief Customs Officer Glen Lefiti, noting in its reconsideration motion that the ALJ committed reversible error by exceeding the scope of its review authority of an administration agency’s decision.
The Department of Treasury recommended to the Department of Human Resources to terminate Lefiti as Chief Customs Officer, following an incident involving former Customs agent, Francis Maluia who allegedly walked out of the Post Office with a package under surveillance by Customs after their canine dogs alerted near the box.
The basis of the termination by the government against Lefiti — who's a career service employee — was that Lefiti as the Chief of Customs failed to report this matter right away to the Treasurer. Lefiti fought his termination through the Administrative Law Judge.
Following a three-day hearing into Lefiti’s matter, the ALJ ruled Lefiti be immediately reinstated as Chief Customs Officer, and within 6 months of his reinstatement be suspended for 30 days.
In this case, the Treasury and Human Resources Departments are represented by Assistant Attorney General Edwin Kamauoha while Lefiti is represented by Sharron Rancourt.
In the reconsideration motion filed in Lefiti’s case, the government pointed out that the court (ALJ) committed reversible error by exceeding the scope of its review authority of an administration agency’s decision, by substituting its judgment as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact in finding that suspension.
Further, the court erred by not giving appropriate weight to the Agency’s experience, technical competence and specialized knowledge in reviewing the agency’s interpretation of the evidence, its factual inferences and its conclusions of law.
“The court reversed the termination and unilaterally imposed its own punishment by suspending the petitioner (Lefiti) for 30 days."
The AG’s office claims the government through the Treasury and HR Department moved to terminate a career service employee, and they followed the specific procedures as outlined by statute and by Administrative code.
Petitioner Lefiti was given proper notice, provided with an opportunity to respond in written or oral form and allowed to offer evidence. The Treasury and DHR considered the evidence and made a decision based on their judgment, experience and expertise that Lefiti’s actions warranted termination.
The matter before ALJ was to review whether the administrative agency’s decision to terminate Lefiti was properly executed and justified under the laws of American Samoa; and, while allowing for ALJ jurisdiction to hear the case, the government claims the ALJ’s authority to review an ASG agency's decision is clearly limited to two statutes:
1 Reversal or modification of decision, which states that the court may reverse or modify the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings if substantial rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the decision of the agency is in violation of applicable constitutional or statutory provisions.
2 Jurisdiction of the ALJ is to conduct hearings with regard to controversies, grievances and administrative appeals by government employees pertaining to employment, termination, suspension or discipline.
The government pointed out that in applying the said statutes, the agency’s actions and decision to terminate petitioner did not violate any of the above mentioned factors.
“The respective agencies afforded petitioner (Lefiti) with constitutional and statutory protection throughout the termination proceedings and substantially complied with the procedures and standards necessary to make an informed decision,” the motion notes.
“Such decision to terminate petitioner was made within the purview of the relevant ASG administrative agency and there was no finding by this tribunal (ALJ) of any clear error of law, unlawful procedure, nor a finding of arbitrariness characterized by an abuse of discretion,” the government states.
In fact, the government pointed out the court concluded that Lefiti in fact committed negligence and gross misjudgment in his handling of the Maluia incident. “The finding of negligence and gross misjudgment, alone or taken together should be sufficient grounds to refute any allegation that the agency was unsupported by substantial evidence.”
Furthermore, in this case the ASG’s agency‘s primary justification for Lefiti’s termination was for his “dereliction of responsibilities in his handling of the Francis Maluia incident.
According to the motion, given the serious nature of this situation, the gravity of the neglectful actions of Petitioner and its effects on the safety of the Territory of American Samoa, Lefiti’s “negligence and dereliction of duties warranted the action of termination”.
In exceeding its authority, the government points out that the ALJ’s role is to review the administrative decision for legal sufficiency not to submit “its judgement for what rightfully belongs to the HR” and consequently it was in error to rescind the decision of the HR.
The motion states, “consequently, it was error to reverse the termination decision of the Agency” and the court should rescind the decision and order to suspend Lefiti and reinstate him as Chief Customs Officer, and should instead affirm the ASG agency’s decision to terminate him.
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