WASHINGTON (CN) - A former Labor Department employee who exhausted agency options in pursuing discrimination claims can file suit, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Carolyn Kloeckner says the Labor Department exposed her to a hostile work environment and discriminated against her on the basis of her age and sex during her time as a senior investigator for the St. Louis office of the Employee Benefits Security Administration.
In June 2005, she filed an equal employment opportunity complaint and stopped going to work. After the department fire her a year later, Kloeckner tried to challenge her removal directly with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). She later dismissed this proceeding without prejudice to streamline discovery costs.
When the secretary of the Labor Department rejected Kloeckner's equal opportunity complaint in 2007, she took her appeal to the MSPB.
Noting that it granted Kloeckner 10 months to refile her claims when she dismissed the initial proceedings, the MSPB said her appeal was untimely.
Kloeckner then sued the Labor Department secretary in Washington, but that court transferred her case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. A judge there later found that proper venue lay with the Federal Circuit, and the 8th Circuit affirmed in May 2011.
Citing a circuit split, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in January and reversed Monday.
The decision turns on Section 7703 of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), which governs judicial review of MSPB decisions, and Section 7702, which describes and provides for the "cases of discrimination" referenced in an exception of the aforementioned provision.
"Under §7703(b)(2), 'cases of discrimination subject to [§7702]' shall be filed in District Court," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the 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 shall be filed in District Court.
"And so that is where Kloeckner's case should have been filed (as indeed it was). No one here contests that Kloeckner brought a mixed case - that she was affected by an action (i.e., removal) appealable to the MSPB and that she alleged discrimination prohibited by an enumerated federal law. And under the CSRA's terms, that is all that matters. Regardless whether the MSPB dismissed her claim on the merits or instead threw it out as untimely, Kloeckner brought the kind of case that the CSRA routes, in crystalline fashion, to District Court."
Kagan joked after describing the complicated alternative that the government proposed to send Kloeckner's case to the Federal Circuit.
If you need to take a deep breath after all that, you're not alone," she wrote. "It would be hard to dream up a more round-about way of bifurcating judicial review of the MSPB's rulings in mixed cases. If Congress had wanted to send merits decisions to District Court and procedural dismissals to the Federal Circuit, it could just have said so. The government has offered no reason for Congress to have constructed such an obscure path to such a simple result."