Supreme Court unanimous: Process for discrimination claims was too complicated

December 11, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld a former federal worker’s right to appeal a discrimination case in U.S. district court despite a lower court’s determination that the matter should be taken up in a special federal claims court. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Kloeckner v. Solis reversed an appeals court’s earlier decision. 

Carolyn Kloeckner, who alleged unlawful sex and age discrimination by the Labor Department, first took her claim to the Merit Systems Protection Board. But she later withdrew that complaint to focus on a related case she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

A judge for the commission terminated the woman’s case based on “bad-faith discovery conduct” and returned the matter to the Labor Department, which ultimately ruled against Kloeckner, according to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion. 

Kloeckner went back to the Merit Systems Protection Board with an appeal, but the board dismissed her case on procedural grounds because she had missed a deadline for re-filing the claim she withdrew earlier. 

Kloeckner took her case to district court, where a judge determined that the review belonged in circuit court, due to the fact that the board had based its decision on a procedural matter. The court said it could only rule on merit-based decisions in discrimination cases.       

The Supreme Court disagreed. 

“A federal employee who claims that an agency action appealable to the MSPB violates an antidiscrimination statute … should seek judicial review in district court, not in the Federal Circuit,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of the majority. “That is so whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or instead on the merits.” 

The National Treasury Employees Union released a statement today applauding the court’s decision, saying: “It is important that federal employees have broader appeal rights in connection with these very serious personnel matters than the narrow review employees would have received in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.” 

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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