KODIAK — Derrik Magnuson joined the Coast Guard in 1992, at age 19.
He went to boot camp in Elizabeth City, N.C., before being sent to Morgan City, La., where he was stationed on a patrol cutter. In 1995, he moved to Kodiak, where he served as a navigator and quartermaster on the cutter Storis. After a brief stint in the Caribbean, he returned to Kodiak in 2000, where he’s been ever since.
Magnuson is a decorated service member; he was awarded the “E” Ribbon with one gold star, the Achievement Medal with two gold stars, the Rifle Expert Medal and numerous commendation medals during his career.
But in 2013, after 21 years with the Coast Guard, he got an unexpected letter. He was 40 years old, and had just returned from a mission aboard the cutter Alex Haley.
“The letter said something like, ‘You’ve been chosen for involuntary retirement,’” he said. “‘Thank you for your service.’”
“I was floored,” he said.
Magnuson is one of approximately 400 former Coast Guard service members who, according to a complaint filed June 27 in federal court, were forced to retire in violation of federal law between 2012-2014, under a controversial Coast Guard personnel program. Magnuson is one of three named plaintiffs in the suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
According to a statute in effect during that period, Coast Guard service members who served 20 years or more could be forced to retire only if there was a reduction in force, or if an “Enlisted Personnel Board” determined after a hearing that the service member’s performance was substandard, or the service member had committed a “professional dereliction.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs allege that through a program called CRSP, the Coast Guard Active Duty Enlisted Career Retention Screening Panel, the Coast Guard violated service members’ rights to due process and involuntary retired them without adequate review and without any reduction in the force.
“At no time during that period did a reduction in force take place,” the complaint states.
When reached for comment, a representative of the Coast Guard said they could not comment on ongoing litigation.
Per a 2010 Coast Guard memorandum, CRSP was implemented “to address high retention and its adverse impact on workforce flow.”
“The entire military workforce has experienced record high retention that has decreased accessions,” or promotions, an August 5, 2010, ALCOAST administrative announcement states. “To ensure viability and growth potential, we must take steps to ensure that we maintain workforce flow and advancement opportunities,” the notice continues.
For Magnuson, notification of his retirement came as a shock. He said service members were aware of the program when it began, but he did not think he would be affected.
“Based on what we were told, if you had any kind of disciplinary action, or something in your record — like alcohol incidents or a DUI — you would be CRSP’ed,” Magnuson said. “I had none of that in my record.”
According to the complaint, the details of CRSP proceedings were kept confidential, including from those chosen for review. Service members identified for the program had limited opportunities to respond to the board’s findings.
The service members under review were allowed to communicate with the panel “only through a two-page memo describing mitigating information,” the complaint states. “The service members were otherwise excluded from participating in CRSP proceedings.”
Magnuson said he received no explanation as to why he was selected.
“I wrote a letter trying to get information on why I was in CRSP,” he said. “They wrote me back just saying, ‘Your service will end on this date.’”
Fortunately, Magnuson said, he was able to find a job with the city of Kodiak in the harbors department.
“I was lucky to step into an open job with the city,” he said.
However, he said he had planned to work a full 30 years with the Coast Guard.
“There was a constant, steady work flow,” he added. “I was a supervisor for all logistics, all the way out to Adak. I was going above and beyond.”
The complaint, filed less than a month ago, has not yet been answered by the Coast Guard.
The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.
Class members are seeking full back pay, including “allowances, benefits and other emoluments to which they otherwise would have been entitled but for their unlawful retirements,” the complaint states.
Plaintiffs are also requesting the court “declare that the CRSP process was contrary to law,” and provide class members the opportunity to be reinstated to active duty service.