Court makes bias complaint process simpler for federal workers

December 11, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court has given federal workers a simpler and less confusing process for appealing discrimination cases that have been dismissed on procedural grounds, the court and worker advocates said.

Federal appellate courts were divided on the issue of which courts should handle reviews when cases are dismissed by the Merit Systems Protection Board for reasons unrelated to their merits. An earlier decision by an appeals court said the highly specialized Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit should review such cases.

The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday in Kloeckner v. Solis overturned that decision and held that appellants can take their appeals to district court regardless of whether their ­cases have been dismissed on procedural grounds or on their merits.

“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. “That is so whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or instead on the merits.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, “This ruling provides a much more clear and rational path.” Past legal precedent had left discrimination cases open to potentially “ping-pong” through the judicial system, she said.

The Labor Department and the MSPB declined to comment on the ruling.

About 16,000 workers across all federal agencies — or .53 percent of the federal workforce — filed discrimination claims in 2011, the latest year for which Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data was available.

Carolyn Kloeckner, who alleged unlawful sex and age discrimination by the Labor Department, first took her discrimination claim to the MSPB. She later withdrew that complaint to focus on a related case she filed with the EEOC.

A judge for the commission terminated her 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 MSPB with an appeal, but the board dismissed her case on procedural grounds because she had missed a deadline for refiling the claim she withdrew earlier.

Kloeckner took her case to district court, where a judge determined that the appeal belonged in circuit court because 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.

Kagan wrote in the majority opinion that “the intersection of federal civil rights statutes and civil service law has produced a complicated, at times confusing, process for resolving claims of discrimination in the federal workplace.”

William Bransford, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law, said the Supreme Court decision effectively reversed case law that had gradually diminished the right to bring discrimination cases before district courts.

“Most cases will get to district court on the merits of the claim if the appellant wants that,” he said. “But that wasn’t the case with procedural appeals.”

In an interview Tuesday, Kloeckner called the ruling a decisive victory that put to rest arguments that the government had made.

Now, she said, “A lot of cases will see the light of day.”

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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