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Opinion analysis: Straight route to court, not a maze


People who work for the federal government are protected, as are other employees, from discrimination in the workplace.  But, depending on where they live and work, federal employees have faced a circuitous path to a court where they might pursue their claims.  On Monday, the Supreme Court said there is a simple route to court, and it chastised the federal government for trying to complicate it.  “It would be hard,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for a unanimous Court, “to dream up a more round-about way” of setting up judicial review of federal discrimination cases than the one laid out by the government.

In fact, the Court was so put off by the government proposal that, after reciting it, Kagan wrote: “If you need to take a deep breath after all that, you’re not alone.”  Choosing an uncomplicated route, the Court said that such cases should go to a federal district court after passing through agency review, and not to the specialized Federal Circuit Court.   The ruling came in the case of Kloeckner v. Solis, docket 11-184.

The decision came in the case of Carolyn M. Kloeckner, who worked in the Labor Department in St. Louis as a benefits investigator.  She complained that she was the victim of discrimination based on her sex and her age, by subjecting her to a hostile work environment.  After a disagreement with her superiors over documents they demanded while she was on leave, she declined to return to work, and was fired   As she had a right to do, under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, she pursued her complaint initially with the Merits Systems Protection Board.   That is an independent agency within the civil service system, but an employee may go to that Board only with an appeal over a serious employment action, such as firing or a cut in pay.

If the employee complains, as Kloeckner did, about being fired, and if an added claim is that the worker was a victim of workplace bias in violation of a civil rights law such as Title VII, that is what is called a “mixed case” — or, more directly, a discrimination case.   The law provides special procedures for pursuing that kind of grievance.   It starts out at a very complex level.  Justice Kagan wrote 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.”   The Court got involved with this process again, because of a dispute among lower courts on where an employee goes to challenge a ruling against the worker by the Board.

Even within the system as convoluted as it is, Kagan declared, “some things are plain.”  Kloeckner, and other employees in her situation, the Court ruled, should go to federal district court, not to the Federal Circuit, with their appeals.   In her case, the Board dismissed it without deciding for or against her on the substance of her claim of biased treatment.   She then sued the Labor Department in a federal district court, but the judge in that court threw out the claim, finding that only the Federal Circuit could review a Board ruling based on procedural grounds.

The federal government had proposed to the Court that, if the Board’s ruling against a worker was only procedural in nature, as in Kloeckner’s situation, the worker’s next layer of review should be in the Federal Circuit.  Only if the Board ruled on the merits of the worker’s grievance, according to the government, should the worker take the case to a district court.   Recounting how the government chose that route, Justice Kagan referred to it as “mazelike,” and “tortuous.”

Parsing the language of civil service law, the Court ruled that Kloeckner “should go to district court.”  That conclusion, according to Justice Kagan’s reasoning, comes directly out of two sections of the law — but only if those are “read naturally.”  To add insult to the injury done to the government’s argument, Kagan wrote that this conclusion emerged in “crystalline fashion” from the law.  The case was sent back to the Eighth Circuit Court, presumably to give Kloeckner her day in the district court.

This case, made simple:

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case took nearly fourteen pages to describe, so it is not particularly easy to make it simple.   The outcome, though, was simple and straightforward.  An employee of a federal agency who believes that she suffered a serious problem at work — like, for example, getting fired — and who is persuaded that the reason for the action was discrimination based, say, on sex or age, has a right to take the case to a specialized board with the power to decide the claim.  If the worker is dissatisfied with the result at the board, she has a right to go to court.

All that was at issue, at the bottom line of this case, was whether an appeal from the board should go to a regular federal district court, or to a highly specialized federal tribunal, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Boiling down some very complex language in civil service law, the Court declared unanimously that the correct route for such an appeal is to the district court.   That, it said, is very clear and reflects what Congress wanted, not what the executive branch contended in a complex argument that the Court roundly criticized as, in essence, fanciful.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Straight route to court, not a maze, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 10, 2012, 4:54 PM),