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More than 100 sailors are suing the federal government for pushing them out of the Navy amid mass layoffs driven by record retention rates.

The lawsuit alleges the layoffs were not directly approved by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and therefore are illegal under federal law, which limits when the military can dismiss active-duty servicemembers.

"It's a horrible situation that they treat these sailors this way," said E.W. Keller, an Oklahoma lawyer representing the plaintiffs, in a telephone interview. "These sailors are victims."

The plaintiffs are among the nearly 3,000 sailors dismissed after a career review process, implemented last year, sought to thin the Navy's overmanned ranks. An enlisted retention board reviewed the records of 15,386 sailors with seven to 15 years of experience in the ranks of E-4 through E-8. Sailors chosen for separation must leave the Navy by Sept. 1. As of July 25, 632 sailors had already separated from the Navy, said Navy spokesman Lt. Matt Allen.

Navy officials said the dismissals were executed under Mabus' authority, and the sailors will receive honorable discharges.

The lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims cites federal law that states servicemembers cannot be discharged except by sentence of a general or special court-martial, or when prescribed by the secretary of the service. The lawsuit claims Mabus did not directly approve the layoffs, but created the retention boards "to rebalance individual career fields."

Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, announced the review process last year. Only 125 sailors in overmanned ranks were selected to stay in the Navy after converting into another rate, Allen said.

"The ERB cannot be used as an alter ego for purposes of terminating personnel," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prohibit the Navy from carrying out the layoffs. If the injunction is denied, the lawsuit requests damages representing lost wages and benefits for the sailors.

The sailors dismissed after the review process will receive severance pay, temporary medical coverage and extended Navy base support services, Allen said. The severance pay is based on the sailor's monthly pay and years of service, Allen said. They'll receive six months of medical coverage and can purchase 18 additional months of coverage.

Those who have served for at least 15 years are eligible for early retirement, Allen said.

Navy personnel officials met directly with the discharged sailors and their families to discuss any benefits owed to them and to answer questions, Allen said. A consulting firm was hired to help the sailors find new employment.

Keller said he was contacted by the wife of a discharged sailor and was asked to take on the cause. Some plaintiffs put messages on Facebook in recent weeks encouraging others to join the case.

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