B-245649, May 1, 1992

B-245649: May 1, 1992

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Employee and her husband have serious health problems which existed at the time of retirement and worsened later. The employee was not aware of the full extent of their health problems and the unavailability of medical specialists in Ketchikan. Her request for payment of return travel expenses is deemed to relate back to the date of her retirement. Her delay in requesting reimbursement was reasonable under the circumstances of her claim and her return travel may be considered to be incidental to her separation. Ackerman: This decision is in response to a request for a decision concerning the entitlement of Ms. Ackerman was transferred to Alaska from Charleston on June 1. When she was promoted to Port Director at Ketchikan.

B-245649, May 1, 1992

DIGEST: After her retirement while stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska, employee requested payment for separation travel and transportation expenses almost 1 year after separation. Employee and her husband have serious health problems which existed at the time of retirement and worsened later. Since, at the time of retirement, the employee was not aware of the full extent of their health problems and the unavailability of medical specialists in Ketchikan, her request for payment of return travel expenses is deemed to relate back to the date of her retirement. Hence, her delay in requesting reimbursement was reasonable under the circumstances of her claim and her return travel may be considered to be incidental to her separation. See 41 C.F.R. Sec. 302-1.6 (1991).

Bertha D. Ackerman:

This decision is in response to a request for a decision concerning the entitlement of Ms. Bertha D. Ackerman, a retired civilian employee of the United States Customs Service, Department of the Treasury, to the payment of separation travel and transportation expenses from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Charleston, South Carolina. /1/

Ms. Ackerman was transferred to Alaska from Charleston on June 1, 1980, and served at several locations there until March 1, 1987, when she was promoted to Port Director at Ketchikan, Alaska, where she retired 3 years later on March 10, 1990. She and her husband continued to live in Ketchikan after her retirement.

On March 3, 1991, Ms. Ackerman wrote the District Director in Anchorage, Alaska, requesting that the government pay for separation travel to her original point of hire in Charleston. She also requested a 6-month extension. She explained that at the time of her retirement she did not realize that she could not live in Ketchikan because of the lack of medical specialists. She stated that she and her husband have complex heart, prostrate, and kidney problems that cannot be treated locally and that she needs periodontal surgery and her husband must have cataracts removed.

Ms. Ackerman reports that she first became aware of her entitlement to reimbursement of separation travel and transportation expenses 10 months after her retirement, in January 1991, when she took her husband to the Stanford Heart Clinic in San Francisco for a checkup after he had undergone shock treatment. Ms. Ackerman states that, if she had known of the seriousness of their health problems and the unavailability of medical specialists, she would have returned to her home in Charleston when she retired. She maintains that she fulfilled her contract with the Customs Service and trusted them to give her the benefits she earned.

Because return travel was not requested until nearly a year after Ms. Ackerman's separation, the Customs Service believes that there is no authority under the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR), as interpreted by the Comptroller General, for the government to pay the separation travel and transportation expenses of Ms. Ackerman. However, because of the serious health problems which developed subsequent to her separation, and because there is no Comptroller General decision directly on point, the Customs Service has submitted the question for our decision.

Payment for travel and transportation expenses incurred incident to an employee's return from a position outside the continental United States is authorized by 5 U.S.C. Sec. 5722(a)(2) (1988). An agency may pay such expenses only after the employee has served a minimum period of not less than 1 nor more than 3 years prescribed in advance. 5 U.S.C. Sec. 5722(c). The Federal Travel Regulation, 41 C.F.R. Sec. 302 1.5(b)(2), states that, except as precluded by chapter 302, such expenses shall be allowed, provided the employee has complied with the terms of the service agreement. Additionally, 41 C.F.R. Sec. 302-1.6 (1991), provides:

"All travel, including that for the immediate family, and transportation, including that for household goods allowed under this chapter 302, shall be accomplished as soon as possible. The maximum time for beginning allowable travel and transportation shall not exceed 2 years from the effective date of the employee's transfer or appointment. ..." The agency's counsel reports that he was unable to locate anything more specific in the Customs Service Travel Handbook.

With respect to an employee's entitlement to the payment of travel and transportation expenses back to the United States following separation from service, this Office has consistently held that such travel and transportation must be clearly incidental to the termination of the employee's assignment and should commence within a reasonable time after the termination of the assignment in order for return expenses to be reimbursable. /2/

We have stated the following concerning our earlier decisions in 28 Comp.Gen. 285, 289 (1948) and 52 Comp.Gen. 407, 409 (1973):

"However, both of the cited decisions implicitly recognize that where an employee, for involuntary reasons which involve circumstances beyond his control, is unable to return home immediately after the date that his assignment to duty has been terminated, his return home may still be found to have been clearly incidental to the termination and within a reasonable time thereafter." Tegualda Monreal, B-201888, Feb. 19, 1982.

Moreover, in 52 Comp.Gen. 407 (1973), we recognized that incapacitating sickness may constitute an extenuating circumstance beyond the employee's control.

Here, Ms. Ackerman was not aware of the true extent of her and her husband's health problems and the unavailability of medical specialists in Ketchikan to treat their health conditions at the time of her retirement. Therefore, her request, made within the 2-year regulatory period (41 C.F.R. Sec. 302-1.6 (1991) for payment of return travel expenses, is deemed to relate back to the date of her retirement. Hence, her delay in requesting reimbursement was reasonable under the circumstances of her claim, and her return travel may be considered to be incidental to her separation.

Accordingly, Ms. Ackerman's separation travel and transportation expenses may be paid.

/1/ The request was submitted by Mr. Michael T. Schmitz, Chief Counsel, U.S. Customs Service, Ref. AD-91-0589 CC: JEL.

/2/ See Consuelo K. Wassink, 62 Comp.Gen. 200 (1983); 52 Comp.Gen. 407 (1973); 28 Comp.Gen. 285 (1948).

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