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Federal Employee Can Bring Discrimination Claim in District Court

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 10, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court resolved a narrow, but long-standing circuit conflict this week in Kloeckner v. Solis, a jurisdictional dispute about the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

Monday, the Court ruled that a federal employee who claims that an agency action appealable to the MSPB violates an anti-discrimination statute should seek judicial review in district court — not the Federal Circuit — regardless of whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or on the merits.

The case before the Court involved Carolyn Kloeckner, who was fired from the Labor Department for being absent without leave while her separate discrimination and hostile work environment claims were pending before an Equal Employment Opportunity Council judge, The Associated Press reports. A removal from employment is appealable to the MSPB -- and Kloeckner believed the agency's action was discriminatory -- so she had a mixed case.

Kloeckner amended her EEOC complaint to include her claim of discriminatory removal.

Due to accusations of bad-faith conduct in connection with discovery, the case bounced between the EEOC, the Department of Labor, and the MSPB.

The MSPB dismissed her claims as untimely, and Kloeckner tried to appeal to district court. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, concluded that her appeal could only be heard by the Federal Circuit.

The MSPB is authorized to hear appeals by federal employees regarding certain adverse actions, such as dismissals. If, in such an appeal, the employee asserts that the challenged action was the result of unlawful discrimination, that claim is referred to as a "mixed case."

Previously, there was a circuit split regarding how to handle mixed cases in which the MSPB's decision is silent on the discrimination arguments. Some courts, like the Eighth Circuit, thought an employee in that situation could only appeal to the Federal Circuit. Others held that the employee had to raise discrimination claims in a district court.

Both options presented problems. A Federal Circuit appeal meant dropping the discrimination claim. A district court action meant waiving the opportunity to appeal the MSPB's decision on the standard dismissal grounds.

Monday, the Court reversed the Eighth Circuit in Kloeckner's case, concluding that she had properly filed her complaint in the district court.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court reasoned that 5 U.S.C. §7703(b)(2) provides that "cases of discrimination subject to [5 U.S.C. §7702]" shall be filed in district court. Under §7702(a)(1), the "cases of discrimination subject to [§7702]" are mixed cases -- those appealable to the MSPB and alleging discrimination. Ergo, mixed cases should be filed in district court.

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