Relx, Inc. and Chatterjee v. Baran, 8/5/19 – DC District Court Judge Granted Summary Judgment to the Plaintiffs and Denied Government’s Motion to Dismiss in H-1B Denial

Recently, Judges at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued starkly contrasting decisions in two separate H-1B lawsuits.  Both Sagarwala v. Cissna and RELX, Inc. d/b/a/ LexisNexis USA, and Subhasree Chatterjee v. Baran et al and arose from H-1B petitions that had been denied by the USCIS on “Specialty Occupation” grounds.  Both also appear to have also been filed using the subcategories within the miscellaneous SOC Occupational Classification of 15-1199.00 – Computer Occupations, All Other — a somewhat troublesome classification to establish as a Specialty Occupation, primarily because the USCIS’s Undisputed Holy Book of Professional Occupations, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (“OOH”), does not maintain a detailed description of this classification’s educational requirements.

In the first case, Sagarwala v. Cissna, decided July 2019, the District Court Judge held that USCIS had not acted inappropriately, and that it was within its authority to have denied the H-1B petition on the basis that it was not a Specialty Occupation.  A likely basis for this holding is the fact that Sagarwala’s initial H-1B petition not only failed to note that a suitably specialized education was normally required to fulfill her QA Analyst position, but it instead noted an extremely broad and unrelated list of educational concentrations that could qualify one for this position: “a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Information Technology, Mathematics, Engineering or its equivalent, as well as any other interested and qualified professionals with diverse backgrounds in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics, who ha[d] the necessary quantitative and qualitative critical thinking skill sets.”  While the petitioner later clarified the educational requirements, indicating that its initial statement was “inadvertent statement“, and that it meant to state that it required a Bachelor’s degree in “Computer Information Systems“, the damage was done.  USCIS was (unsurprisingly) unpersuaded and utilized this earlier misstatement as one of the grounds of its denial of the petition.  Ultimately, in my opinion, the USCIS’s decision in Sagarwala was not overturned by the Court because it was a essentially a stillborn case, and due to the fact that the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) requires the Court to be highly deferential to USCIS decisions and to determine primarily whether USCIS acted arbitrarily or capriciously in its denial.  Unfortunately, in this case there was an arguably justified (small as it was) basis for denial.

However, on August 5, 2019, the Court took a markedly different approach in RELX, Inc. d/b/a/ LexisNexis USA, and Subhasree Chatterjee v. Baran et al by denying the USCIS’s motion to dismiss and ordering it to change the beneficiary’s status to H-1B nonimmigrant, and rejecting USCIS’s decision that her petitioner had not shown that its proffered position was a specialty occupation.  

The Court in RELX emphasized that while the scope of judicial review in APA cases is narrow, it is still charged with taking a role in confirming whether the USCIS has properly engaged in reasoned decision when denying an H-1B petition, and that the USCIS must adequately explain its rationale and its reasons.  

The Court sharply rebuked USCIS in this case by finding multiple failures in its “reopening” of its denial of RELX’s H-1B petition, subsequent to which the USCIS issued a new Request for Evidence. This “reopening” appeared to be a strategic act which would have provide USCIS the opportunity to have the lawsuit dismissed. However, the Court appears to have found USCIS’s actions disingenuous, and noted that the USCIS, “failed to follow the regulation that provides it with authority to reopen a petition”, that, “The government’s failure to follow its own regulations in reopening the petition casts doubt on whether the reopening of the petition was valid.”, that it, “has failed to proffer any reason for why it reopened the petition other than that it was in response to this lawsuit.”.  The Court found that the USCIS’s subsequently issued Request for Evidence (“RFE”) was “identical” to the previous RFE and “fails to request evidence that it was not provided during its original review of the petition”. On this point the Court sagely noted that,

“It is unclear what purpose, if any, is served by requesting and reviewing the exact same information, and expecting such review to lead to a different result. Because the agency has failed to request any new information when it attempted to reopen the petition, the Court finds the circumstances of the reopening highly suspect and contrary to the regulations.”

The Court in RELX went on to emphasize the fact that the USCIS had erroneously ignored relevant information, including Job Postings, an Expert Opinion on Specialty Occupation, as well as summary details from the O*NET and the OOH on the proffered job.

The Court also put to pen the mantra chanted for years by many H-1B stakeholders, declaring that, “There is no requirement in the statute that only one type of degree be accepted for a position to be specialized.”  Responding to its summation of the USCIS’s position that “since multiple fields of education are suitable for the position . . . it is not one that is qualified as a specialty occupation”, the Court stated that:

“This position is untenable. There is no requirement in the statute that only one type of degree be accepted for a position to be specialized. The statute and regulations simply require that a “position actually requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge, and the attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree in the specific specialty [is a] minimum requirement for entry into the occupation.” AR 3. In other words, if the position requires the beneficiary to apply practical and theoretical specialized knowledge and a higher education degree it meets the requirements. Nowhere in the statute does it require the degree to come solely from one particular academic discipline. As other courts have explained “[d]iplomas rarely come bearing occupation-specific majors. What is required is an occupation that requires highly specialized knowledge and a prospective employee who has attained the credentialing indicating possession of that knowledge.”

In closing, my thoughts on these cases:

a) if Congress will continue to passively sit and allow the USCIS to define the term “Specialty Occupation”, the Federal District Courts will increasingly be called upon as arbiters, however, only on a case-by-case basis, because USCIS considers these decisions nonbinding.  Thus, the underlying issue would remain unresolved, and two tiers of justice could result.

b) District Courts must strictly abide by APA requirements and thus would only attempt penetrate the logic(?) behind the USCIS’ denials if there is a strong H-1B case at stake, along with evidence of unlawful agency action.  One doesn’t have need a Rosa Parks to file suit against the government, but one should ensure that an underlying H-1B petition is consistent and well-documented.

c) The USCIS has denied a record number of H-1B petitions in the last several quarters, and thus there is no dearth of erroneously denied H-1B petitions which could be the subject of a suit against the USCIS.  For many petitioners and H-1B professionals, USCIS there are no other options.

d) The very act of denying legitimate H-1B petitions often requires USCIS to cut corners, be imaginative, and to overstep its authority. This is where a successful APA lawsuit lives, and I believe we will see many more.

Update: The Times of India ran an article on the RELX case, in which I was quoted. 

Link: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/indians-h-1b-for-data-analysts-job-wrongfully-denied-court/articleshow/70636076.cms

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