December 10, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Kloeckner v. Solis

On December 10, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kloeckner v. Solis, No. 11-184, holding that a federal employee who claims that an agency action appealable to the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) violates an antidiscrimination statute listed in Section 7702(a)(1) of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (Act) should seek judicial review in district court rather than the Federal Circuit—regardless of whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or the merits.

Carolyn Kloeckner filed a complaint in 2005 with her employer, the Department of Labor, alleging that the agency had subjected her to a hostile work environment. While that case pended before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Labor fired Kloeckner. Kloeckner then filed with the MSPB, claiming unlawful discrimination. But to minimize duplicative discovery expenses, she added the "discriminatory removal" claim to her EEOC complaint and secured from the MSPB a dismissal without prejudice to her right to re-file her case by January 8, 2007. In April 2007, the EEOC terminated Kloeckner's proceedings as a sanction for bad faith discovery conduct and returned the case to the Department of Labor. When the Department of Labor later ruled against her on all claims, Kloeckner appealed that decision to the MSPB. The MSPB, however, dismissed her appeal as an untimely attempt to revive the action she had previously filed. Kloeckner then brought her unlawful discrimination claims in federal district court, but the court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It interpreted Section 7703(b)(2) of the Act as granting jurisdiction in discrimination cases that the Board had decided on the merits, but not those decided on procedural grounds. The court believed Kloeckner should have sought review in the Federal Circuit under Section 7703(b)(1). The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Kloeckner properly sought review in district court, irrespective of whether the Board decided her case on procedural grounds or the merits. The Court noted that: 1) the text of 7703(b)(1) provides that petitions to review final MSPB decisions should be filed in the Federal Circuit except as provided in Section 7703(b)(2); and 2) Section 7703(b)(2) provides that covered discrimination cases "shall be filed under" the enforcement provisions of listed antidiscrimination statutes—each of which authorizes an action in federal district court. The Court then observed that Section 7702 covers cases (1) appealable to the MSPB and (2) alleging discrimination prohibited by a listed federal statute. Putting these sections together, the Court concluded that "mixed cases" (that is, cases appealable to the MSPB and alleging certain prohibited discrimination) should be filed in district court. In contrast to this natural reading of statutory provisions, the Court found the bifurcated scheme advocated by the Government—i.e., that the Act directs merits decisions by the MSPB to district court and procedural rulings to the Federal Circuit—unsupported. Nor was it persuaded that Congress would construct "such an obscure path to such a simple result."  

Justice Kagan delivered the decision for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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