Andrew McGuffin was not a star employee. 

That much is clear from the thousands of pages of court documents that have accumulated over the last eight years. He was slow and struggled with time management. He obsessed over details when his job demanded efficiency. Assignments sat on his desk for days or weeks past their deadline. 

His bosses were frustrated. Even after they accommodated his requests—special software, extra training—he couldn’t keep up. They wanted him gone. 

But this was government work. Things weren’t that easy. 

McGuffin, then forty, was hired in February 2010 by the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Raleigh. He was an attorney-adviser, tasked with writing the decisions made by SSA judges in disability appeals. The agency was extraordinarily backlogged. This was a burn-and-churn environment. 

By that October, they were thinking about firing him. In November, his supervisor told a manager that more training would be pointless. “I think he will be a problem for us in the long run.”

But there was a complication. As a disabled combat veteran, McGuffin was a “preference-eligible” employee. Under federal law, he’d have the right to appeal his termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board after one year of service instead of the usual two, and firing him would become a more cumbersome process. 

They didn’t want to deal with that. 

At the same time, however, they couldn’t fire him for low productivity—not explicitly, not until his second year, by which point he’d have the right to appeal. Second-year writers have to handle a “fair share” of the office’s workload, but the SSA merely requires first-year hires to demonstrate “interpersonal skills” and “engage in new learning.” 

After some back-and-forth, they arrived at a workaround, according to court records: Without citing numeric standards, they determined that his “low productivity shows he is not engaging learning.” 

On February 4, 2011, four days before his rights vested, McGuffin became the first Raleigh decision-writer the SSA had sacked since the Reagan administration. His termination letter said he’d failed to demonstrate that he could do his job “accurately and independently.” 

But McGuffin didn’t go quietly. Instead, he went to war. 

Though he left the military twenty-five years ago, McGuffin is very much a marine. He’s resilient and relentless. And now he felt betrayed. 

McGuffin had given up the Social Security and Veterans Affairs disability benefits he’d earned in combat because he wanted to work. The federal government, he says, is “supposed to be a model employer for people with disabilities and veterans, and they fucked me.”

He decided to fuck them right back. His firing wounded his pride. His bitterness gave him purpose. 

Over the next eight years, usually representing himself, McGuffin fought the SSA before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Merit Systems Protection Board, and in federal court. Every step of the way, he says, the government dragged things out, refusing to negotiate or settle. And every step of the way, he lost. 

Until he won. 

Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled not only that the SSA had illegally fired McGuffin, but also that the evidence showed he wasn’t a “poorly performing new hire.” 

It was vindication. 

Andrew McGuffin, the fired decision-writer, had taken on the SSA and the Department of Justice and their teams of attorneys by himself and prevailed. 

Could a crappy lawyer pull that off?  

McGuffin is burly, but he comes across as gentle, almost fragile. He has graying hair and long sideburns, a fleck of facial hair jutting out below his bottom lip, and piercing blue eyes. He loves Bernie Sanders. He’s at once proud of and ambivalent about his Marine Corps service; he likens the experience to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

He joined the corps in 1990 because he had few other options. He grew up poor in West Virginia and Florida. His family lived off welfare. When he was sixteen, his father took him to Mexico and abandoned him there.

For a few years, he says, he lived on his own, an undocumented immigrant, renting cars in an airport and dodging Mexican immigration officials. But there was no future there. He needed a real job, and he didn’t have a high school diploma. The corps could open doors. It also played to his ideas about what it meant to be a man. 

Of all the military branches, the marines seemed the most “hardcore.” 

That August, six months after he enlisted, he was in Kuwait, one of the first boots on the ground ahead of Operation Desert Storm. 

The war changed him. He began experiencing flashbacks and dissociative episodes. He couldn’t concentrate. He drank heavily and thought about suicide. In 1992, after his unit returned to the U.S., he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

PTSD wasn’t something marines talked about then. But McGuffin embraced treatment and therapy. He stopped drinking. He became, in his words, a “superlative marine.” By the time he redeployed to Kuwait in 1993, he’d been promoted to corporal. 

He left the marines in 1994 and earned his diploma and then a bachelor’s degree at Humboldt State University in California. He considered seeking a PhD in history, but the law offered him an opportunity to right wrongs. He was drawn to it. 

Around this time, he’d reconnected with his third-grade teacher from Claremont, Florida, who’d given him extra attention when he came to school dirty and hungry. A black woman in a town riven with racial tensions, she’d been legally blinded during a surgery-gone-wrong, then mistreated by a local court when she sued, he says. 

You can’t fix that in a classroom. 

McGuffin graduated from UC-Hastings College of Law in 2002. But he hadn’t outrun his demons. Soon after graduation, he applied for Social Security disability, saying he couldn’t work. 

By 2003, he’d gotten well enough to land a job with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s farmworkers unit. This kind of law was his passion—he says he regrets leaving—but he was only there for a year-and-a-half. Coming off a divorce, he needed to make more money, he says, so went to a private firm. But he only stayed for a year. According to court records, he had trouble with the long hours and told his psychiatrist that “his poor concentration, poor energy, and irritability were really impairing his ability to work.”

After that, he worked for the Center for Responsible Lending for two years, but again, he was unable to keep up with the caseload. He told a psychologist that he was struggling with his memory. 

McGuffin fell into a deep depression. He became paranoid and suicidal, he says. His girlfriend told him he’d lost touch with reality. Eventually, he was hospitalized. 

The fog slowly began to lift. He found the right medications and started working with the VA’s vocational rehab program in Durham. By mid-2009, he wanted to work again. He didn’t want to live on the dole. 

McGuffin applied to the Social Security Administration. For months, he heard nothing. Then, on a Friday in February, he got a call: Could he come to work on Monday? 

There was no interview, he says.

McGuffin thinks his managers were gunning for him from the very beginning.

“At the outset,” he says, “they were upset that they were compelled to hire me or felt compelled to hire me.” 

Just before he started, a colleague later told him, the hearing office director announced to the staff that McGuffin would be joining the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, or ODAR, as a “special hire.” (In court documents, the SSA denies this.) A few months later, court records say, in a phone call with a senior administrative judge, the director apparently referred to McGuffin as a “vet they had to hire,” according to the judge’s handwritten notes. 

To function despite his disability, McGuffin required accommodations, including a speech-to-text program called Dragon and an assistive technology called the Kurzweil 3000. McGuffin says he verbally asked for these programs in March and made a formal request in May. But he didn’t get the correct version of Dragon installed on his computer until the summer. Like other new decision-writers hired that February, he wasn’t sent to a training program until July. And he wasn’t assigned a mentor to help guide him through the basics for a month.

Yet almost right away, he says, he was told he wasn’t producing enough. 

The SSA was under pressure. It faced a massive backlog of disability appeals, and Congress was breathing down its neck. Each administrative law judge was responsible for upward of seven hundred cases a year. In 2014, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee criticized this production-factory mind-set in a report accusing ALJs of granting billions of dollars in undeserved benefits. 

When he came in, McGuffin says, he was told to write Chevys, not Cadillacs. But that wasn’t his style. 

“I understand that [the SSA] is very focused on ‘the numbers,’ and I derive no pleasure from being the slowest writer in Raleigh ODAR,” he told his supervisor in December 2010. “Some of that comes from my cognitive limitations and my disability, and some of that is from my thoroughness.”

To McGuffin’s managers, what mattered was that he wasn’t handling his “fair share” of cases. He wasn’t even doing the bare minimum: two decisions reversing or one decision affirming a denial of benefits every day. (Affirmations take longer because they’re likely to be appealed.) 

McGuffin, by contrast, wrote just eight decisions in August, nine in September, sixteen in October, and eleven in November.

When McGuffin challenged his termination to the EEOC, the SSA argued that speed was a key aspect of the job: “A request by a decision writer to have extra time to write decisions is not a reasonable accommodation because a reasonable accommodation has to enable an individual to perform the essential functions of the job. … [McGuffin] understood that he was expected to have the ability to write one affirmation or two reversals a day within the first six months of his employment.”

That might have been an expectation, but legally, it wasn’t grounds to fire him. A collective bargaining agreement forbade the SSA from enforcing quotas. And agency policy prohibited using productivity metrics alone to terminate an employee. The “fair share” standard, meanwhile, wasn’t supposed to apply until a writer’s second year. 

Perhaps sensing their tenuous position—McGuffin’s “performance situation is a bit problematic because of his disability,” a senior attorney-adviser put it—the office placed McGuffin on a two-week training program in January, which it later portrayed in court documents as a last-ditch effort to help McGuffin better manage his time. 

It worked. McGuffin’s productivity nearly doubled from December to January. 

But his supervisors said it wasn’t enough. The day his training period ended, they began moving his termination through the chain of command, seeking to wrap it up before his rights vested.  

Later, McGuffin learned that his managers had considered firing another attorney-adviser who came on board around the time he did. But she wasn’t a preference-eligible veteran, which meant she wouldn’t gain appeal rights for two years. They kept her on, she improved, and she was eventually promoted. 

He wasn’t given that chance. 

Because McGuffin was a veteran, one manager explained, “we want to terminate him in his first year of service so that he does not acquire [Merit Service Protection Board] rights.” The assistant regional chief ALJ was equally explicit: “The vet has to be terminated in his first year—for the other it is two years.” 

That violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, or USERRA, McGuffin argued. He was treated differently because he was a veteran, and that was illegal. 

This claim became the central thrust of his federal lawsuit. 

More precisely, it became the thrust of his second lawsuit. His first died ignominiously, before it even began, with a missed filing deadline in federal court. 

He initially challenged his termination with the EEOC, alleging that the SSA discriminated against him because of his disability. The EEOC sided with the SSA, ruling that McGuffin couldn’t meet the agency’s performance standards with or without accommodations.

McGuffin says this decision was based on a misrepresentation—that the SSA had a numeric standard he’d failed to meet. Regardless, the evidence he gathered revealed that the SSA had rushed to fire him ahead of the one-year deadline, which gave rise to a new legal theory: The SSA had used a veterans benefit against him, and that amounted to discrimination. 

He made this case to the MSPB, a quasi-judicial agency that examines allegations of wrongdoing in the federal workforce. An administrative judge dismissed it without a hearing. McGuffin appealed to the MSPB’s board of directors, which sent the case back to the judge, who—after a hearing—ruled against McGuffin again. 

He took his case to the U.S. district court. He lost. He filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit. Last December, he got the chance to argue his case in person. 

Then he waited. 

The whole process has been “trench warfare,” McGuffin says. His daughter, who was born twelve days after he was fired, “has witnessed me suffer and have to seek professional help because these people are putting me through a fucking meat grinder,” he says.

A few weeks ago, he says, he’d reached the end of his rope. He wanted finality, whatever it was. He’d been waiting for the Court of Appeals’ decision for eleven months.

“I was proofreading the letter I was writing to the court to say, ‘Kill me or save me,’” McGuffin says. If the decision didn’t come soon, he says, he was considering a hunger strike.

Just then, it came. 

It was November 7, the Thursday before Veterans Day. The court’s website listed the ruling as “precedential,” meaning it established new case law: Expediting a preference-eligible employee’s removal because of the one-year deadline is discriminatory. That’s a big deal, McGuffin says. 

Just as important, at least for his ego, the court rebuffed the SSA’s contention that he wasn’t just a slow writer but a lousy one, too, citing several ALJs who complimented his attention to detail. It ruled that the evidence “does not support a finding that Mr. McGuffin was a poorly performing new hire.”  

“I’m a damn good lawyer,” McGuffin says. “I have my issues. I’m not saying I’m the best attorney in the world. But one thing for which I deserve no criticism is the quality of my writing or research.” 

McGuffin won a decisive battle, but his war isn’t over. 

Even if the government doesn’t appeal, he’s staring down several years of litigation as the case heads back to an MSPB judge to determine damages. He’s seeking eight years of back pay, including benefits and raises he might have received—probably near $1 million—plus reinstatement. (The Department of Justice and the SSA’s Raleigh office declined to comment for this story.)

McGuffin expects the government to keep fighting. He also expects that he’ll again end up in federal court. 

Nonetheless, he says, the decision restored at least some of his jaundiced faith in the system. 

“This is the first Veterans Day in many a Veterans Day when I felt like it meant something to me,” McGuffin says. “All those platitudes, all that rhetoric—before Thursday, I just thought, what a fucking load of horse shit.”

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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2 replies on “In 2011, the Raleigh Social Security Office Fired a Disabled Vet. He Got His Revenge in Court.”

  1. The profile / feature style of this story does a disservice to Andrew McGuffin. The story is newsworthy because his efforts resulted in a precedential ruling that solidified an intended benefit for Veteran employees. The details that led to this ruling are lost in this story. Instead it’s the writer’s portrait of McGuffin that garners the most attention.

    The writer of this article chose to lead with the statement, “Andrew McGuffin was not a star employee,” so that’s the impression the reader is given right from the start. But exactly who in this story is? It certainly can’t be the supervisors, regional chief, or MSPB judge mentioned in the article. It’s never implied by the writer that any of them were professionally incompetent. No, it’s only McGuffin that the author directly insults.

    The fact that Andrew McGuffin is both a disabled Veteran and excellent attorney gets lost in this article. In this case, he represented himself against a team of lawyers from the SSA and DOJ and won a unanimous decision at the federal court of appeals. The writer asks, “Could a crappy attorney have done that?”. What kind of question is that? No one mentioned in the article ever called McGuffin a crappy attorney, and a couple of judges cited in the article compliment the the quality of his work.

    Andrew McGuffin has been using his professional aptitude to advocate for Veterans for decades. He has helped numerous Veterans get established with the VA and other social services. He’s won cases that have resulted in life-changing, and in some cases, life-saving, medical and monetary benefits for disabled Veterans and done so pro bono. It’s terrifying that McGuffin’s own employer, a state agency that makes legal decisions, used his Veteran status to discriminate against him, and it would have made for a more impactful and honest article if the author would have focused more on the facts of this case and what they mean to the public and less on his view of McGuffin.

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