The Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) is the quasi-judicial arm of the DOE that provides a variety of key services to DOE and the public. OHA has five core functions:
1.) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Appeals.
The FOIA is one of the principal ways that members of the public can learn about what is happening inside their government. Individuals file more than 2,000 FOIA requests with the DOE each year. When a DOE office denies a FOIA request in whole or in part, the FOIA requester may file an appeal with OHA. OHA reviews the denial and may decide that additional information should be released. OHA also handles appeals when material requested under the Privacy Act, a law governing access to certain records on individuals, is withheld. OHA’s FOIA appeals program fosters government transparency and helps inform the public by ensuring that the DOE releases all the information these laws require.
2.) Personnel Security Hearings.
Many DOE employees, contractor employees and other individuals connected with the DOE are required to hold a security clearance, or access authorization. When a DOE security office raises questions about the eligibility of an individual to hold a security clearance, the individual may request a hearing with OHA pursuant to 10 C.F.R. Part 710. OHA’s Personnel Security hearings provide a neutral, confidential forum for security concerns to be raised while allowing individuals a chance to explain why those concerns have been mitigated or resolved. In this way, OHA helps reduce national security risks while ensuring that talented employees who are eligible for a security clearance can perform their duties and contribute to the DOE.
3.) Whistleblower Matters.
The DOE relies on more than 90,000 contractor employees to carry out vital parts of its mission. DOE contractor employees who believe that their employer has retaliated against them for engaging in certain protected activities, i.e. whistleblowing, may file a complaint with the DOE under 10 C.F.R. Part 708. The complaint may be referred to OHA for an investigation and a hearing. By providing a forum for contractor employees to make whistleblower claims, OHA provides relief to individuals who have unfairly suffered some adverse employment action, such as termination or demotion, because they acted as whistleblowers. OHA’s whistleblower protection activities also help create a culture in which contractor employees feel free to report health and safety concerns, violations of law and other serious matters without fear of reprisal.
4.) Exceptions & Special Redress.
Individuals or companies who believe that a generally applicable DOE rule, regulation or order presents them with a serious hardship, a gross inequity or an unfair distribution of burdens may file an application with OHA requesting an exception. Many companies currently come to OHA to seek relief from DOE’s energy efficiency regulations for products such as refrigerators, air conditioners and electric motors. OHA’s ability to provide exceptions relief makes DOE regulations more flexible and tailored, ensuring that the regulations are applied fairly and that the goals of important regulations, such as energy efficiency, are not compromised.
5.) Conflict Prevention and Resolution.
The DOE has long been a supporter of alternative means to prevent and resolve disputes (ADR) in its programs. ADR is a way to prevent and resolve conflict in a fair, amicable, timely and cost-effective manner. The DOE uses alternative dispute resolution in many of its activities such as in handling workplace conflicts, resolving contract disputes and adjudicating DOE contractor whistleblower matters. The Office of Conflict Prevent and Resolution is responsible for promoting the use of ADR at all levels of the DOE complex.