Generally, the federal government can be sued only when it consents to being sued.
When Congress passes anti-discrimination laws, it typically specifies whether federal employees are covered. Until recently, it was an open question whether federal employees who win age and other discrimination lawsuits against their agencies could also collect interest on any back pay they were eventually awarded.
Now the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that another federal law—the Back Pay Act—allows judges to order interest payments to federal government employees who win discrimination lawsuits if the employees were affected by “an unjustified or unwarranted personnel action which resulted in the withdrawal or reduction of all or part” of the employee’s pay.
Recent case: David Adam and several other scientists who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey lost their jobs during a 1995 reduction in force. They sued, alleging age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The former employees won several rounds of litigation and asked the federal courts to award them interest on their back pay, given the length of time it took for them to vindicate their rights.
The government claimed that federal law was never intended to allow interest payments.
But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their argument and ordered interest payments based on the general language of the Back Pay Act. (Adam, et al., v. Norton, No. 09-17091, 9th Cir., 2011)