Jacqueline Napier was a member of the Senior Executive Services (SES) who held the role of Deputy Director, Financial Operations for the Department of the Navy from April 2017-March 2019. Napier was selected for the position by a four-member panel and given Exceeds Fully Successful Rating at the conclusion of her first fiscal year.

Before this position, Napier was the Deputy Director of Financial Operations for Coast Guard. Ironically, Thomas Harker worked in an audit readiness and internal control program within the Coast Guard, which actually fell underneath the Director of Financial Operations Office. In 2018, after Napier had moved to the position at the Navy, Harker also moved there as well as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for the Financial Management Office where he was Napier’s third level supervisor.

This scenario – where someone holds a civilian position with supervisory or other authority over another, only to find themselves working for that person in a year or two, is not unusual in the world of SES and political appointees (where the two worlds commingle and sometimes are one in the same) within the Beltway. In fact, the complicated nature of the hiring/appointment rules requires an explanation that can only be done justice in a separate 3,000-word article!

Back to the case at hand, Harker, according to Napier in her complaint, publicly and privately disparaged her as being “incompetent”, and ultimately removed her from her position, via a new direct supervisor, whom Harker had appointed. Napier was demoted to a GS-15 position and was replaced by a male in her SES position. According to Napier, the ratings and removal under Harker were very inconsistent with her past performance or the opinion of her former first line supervisor. Over the course of the few months post removal, Napier was unsuccessful in her reemployment attempts within the SES system. She then pursued administrative remedies under the Equal Employment Opportunity Office of the Navy and then with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) unsuccessfully on the grounds she was discriminated against based on race and gender. After those remedies were exhausted, she filed suit in the United States District Court, District of Columbia last week alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The presently appointed Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, was named as the defendant in the suit. A basic theme of her complaint was that her removal was not supported by her performance reports, nor the opinion of her former first line supervisor.

According to case law, to prove a Title VII racial discrimination claim, the plaintiff must prove the following elements to make out a prima facie case: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for her position; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The first three elements are usually cut and dry one way or another, but the fourth is where the weight of the evidence to support the case is often challenging to meet.

As stated earlier, the dynamics of working in the federal government and being surrounded by people that may be your boss one day and work for you the next is not unusual in the DoD. It is clearly a risk you take as both a political appointee and a SES employee. While fairness and work performance should never cross into agendas, grudges, and political alliances, or whether there is even evidence in this case that it did, human nature would suggest, at least occasionally, otherwise.

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Joe Jabara, JD, is the Director, of the Hub, For Cyber Education and Awareness, Wichita State University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty at two other universities teaching Intelligence and Cyber Law. Prior to his current job, he served 30 years in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Kansas Air National Guard. His last ten years were spent in command/leadership positions, the bulk of which were at the 184th Intelligence Wing as Vice Commander.