The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal employees can appeal discrimination-related complaints in federal district court.
The ruling follows earlier lower court decisions that forced employees to appeal some Merit Systems Protection Board decisions through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The justices’ decision applies to federal employees filing “mixed cases” — complaints involving both allegations of wrongful termination and job discrimination — under the Civil Service Reform Act.
In this case, Carolyn M. Kloeckner was fired from the Labor Department in 2005 after complaining of sex and age discrimination and a hostile work environment.
The MSPB dismissed her case on procedural grounds — a filing deadline had passed — after a protracted legal dispute. Kloeckner tried to appeal her case in district court. But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said her appeal could only be heard by the D.C.-based Federal Circuit because MSPB had decided her case on a procedural matter.
The justices overturned that ruling in a unanimous ruling. Justice Elena Kagan, who delivered the opinion, wrote that federal employees bringing mixed cases — those involving both claims of discrimination and adverse personnel actions — should seek judicial review in district court, not the Federal Circuit, “regardless whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or on the merits.”
The government had argued that the statute required decisions by the MSPB based on the merits of the case to be appealed in federal district while decisions based on procedural grounds (as Kloeckner’s was) had to be appealed in the Federal Circuit.
But the court’s opinion found that argument was not supported by the law’s language and amounted to “an obscure path to such a simple result.”
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands of federal workers, applauded the ruling.
In a statement, NTEU President Colleen Kelley said the ruling would grant federal employees alleging job discrimination “broader appeal rights in connection with these very serious personnel matters than the review employees would have received in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.”