Can a federal district court hear an appeal of a decision by the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) if the MSPB decided on a procedural ground and the case was “mixed” and so involved both unlawful employment termination and discrimination claims?
In 2005, Carolyn M. Kloeckner (“Kloeckner”) left her job as a Senior Investigator for the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employee Benefits Security Administration in the St. Louis office. Soon after, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint alleging sex and age discrimination and a hostile work environment. The DOL charged her with being “absent without leave” and fired her a year later. The dismissal, coupled with the discrimination complaint, result in what is known as a "mixed" case, and is therefore subject to certain forum restrictions. After an unsuccessful outcome with her EEO complaint, Kloeckner appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) which dismissed her claims as untimely. Kloeckner tried to challenge this MSPB decision in federal district court, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, holding that only federal circuit courts had jurisdiction over mixed cases that were dismissed on a procedural ground. The federal circuit courts disagree on this issue, and so the Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine whether a federal district court or a federal appellate-level court can hear an appeal of an MSPB decision to dismiss a mixed claim for being untimely.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
The Merit Systems Protection Board (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."
The Question Presented is:
If the MSPB decides a mixed case without determining the merits of the discrimination claim, is the court with jurisdiction over that claim the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit or a district court?
In 2005, Carolyn M. Kloeckner (“Kloeckner”) stopped going to work as a Senior Investigator for the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employee Benefits Security Administration in the St. Louis office. Kloeckner v. Solis, 639 F.3d 834, 834 (8th Cir. 2011). Soon after, on June 13, 2005, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint alleging sex and age discrimination and a hostile work environment. See id. at 834–35. Her employer charged her with being “absent without leave” for the time between June 13 and July 21 in 2005. See id. at 835. Modifying her EEO complaint, Kloeckner added that this charge was retaliatory, or a negative employment action directly responding to her original EEO complaint. See id. at 835. Kloeckner never returned to work, and on July 21, 2006, the DOL fired her. See id. at 834–35.
Under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), federal employees can challenge negative employment actions, such as a termination, by submitting an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). See Kloeckner at 835. Generally, if an employee files an EEO complaint and then challenges a termination under the CSRA, the whole matter is called a “mixed case” and is covered by both the MSPB and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). See id.If the employee wants to appeal a termination while an EEO complaint is pending, the employee must choose to file that appeal with either the MSPB or EEOC and cannot choose both. See id.
In August 2006, while her EEO complaint was pending, Kloeckner appealed her termination with the MSPB. See Kloeckner at 835. However, in September 2006, Kloeckner asked the MSPB judge to dismiss this appeal without prejudice so that she may modify her EEO complaint to include her termination and so avoid the costs of pursuing two separate proceedings with overlapping facts. See id. The judge agreed with Kloeckner and set January 18, 2007, as the last day to re-file her appeal of termination with the MSPB. See id.
After January 2007, the judge overseeing the EEO complaint scheduled a hearing and then canceled it, finding Kloeckner’s pre-hearing conduct worthy of punishment or sanction. Kloeckner at 836. So, the EEOC judge referred the matter back to the DOL to decide her EEO complaint. See id.
The Secretary of Labor at the DOL, Hilda Solis, rejected all of Kloeckner’s discrimination claims and upheld her termination. See Kloecknerat 836. Solis specified that Kloeckner could appeal this DOL agency decision either to the MSPB or to a federal district court, but not both. See id. Kloeckner challenged this decision at the MSPB, but the MSPB judge interpreted her appeal as attempting to re-file her original MSPB complaint. See id. The MSPB judge referred to the old January 2007 deadline and dismissed her new appeal as “untimely.” See id.
When Kloeckner appealed this new MSPB decision in federal district court, the court dismissed the case, holding that only the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit could hear this kind of case. See Kloecknerat 835.Kloeckner then appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, but that court affirmed the district court’s dismissal. See id. at 838. In other words, the Eighth Circuit held that the federal circuit courts had exclusive authority to review the MSPB dismissal because the MSPB had not reached the merits of Kloeckner’s discrimination claims. See id.Now, Kloeckner appealed this latest decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on January 13, 2012.
The Supreme Court will determine whether a federal district court may hear a federal employee’s “mixed case” that the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) dismissed without deciding on the merits. Petitioner Kloeckner argues that a federal employee can challenge any decision of a mixed case only in federal district court and that changing the law to grant this exclusive review to the federal circuit court would thwart the underlying purpose of anti-discrimination laws. See Brief for the Petitioner, Carolyn M. Kloeckner, at 29–30, 42. Respondent Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor for the Department of Labor, argues that a federal employee can challenge an MSPB dismissal on procedural ground only in a federal circuit court so to fulfill Congressional goals of uniformity and consistency with MSPB procedures. See Brief for the Respondent, Hilda L. Solis, at 19–20.
The Requirements of the Civil Service Reform Act
According to Kloeckner, the interplay of sections 7702 and 7703 of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (“CSRA”) required her to file mixed-case appeal in federal district court and not the federal circuit court. See Brief for the Petitioner, Carolyn M. Kloeckner, at 29–30. Kloeckner argues that section 7702(a) provides that certain mixed cases qualify as discrimination cases under section 7702. See id. at 29. Pointing to section 7702(a)(1), Kloeckner describes two criteria for a mixed case to qualify as a section 7702 discrimination case: The first is that a federal employee underwent a negative employment action, such as being fired, that the employee could appeal to the MSPB; and the second is that the employee claimed discrimination under other federal statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). See id. at 30–31. Additionally, Kloeckner argues that section 7702 is to be read broadly because Congress intended that it reach cases in which the question as to whether discrimination occurs has not yet been decided. See id. at 31. Further, Kloeckner notes that another subsection of the CSRA, section 7703(b)(1), prohibits a federal circuit court from hearing any case within the reach of section 7703(b)(2). See id. at 30. According to Kloeckner, the kinds of claims that section 7703(b)(2) covers include claims under Title VII and the ADEA, meaning that these claims may be brought only to federal district court. See id. at 30.
Contrary to Koeckner’s interpretation of sections 7702 and 7703 of the CSRA, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis argues that a federal circuit court has exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals of mixed cases of discrimination that were not decided on the merits. See Brief for the Respondent, Hilda L. Solis, at 19–20. Solis claims that Congress intended to give the federal circuit courts exclusive jurisdiction over MSPB dismissals under CSRA. See id. at 19-20. Solis argues that the CSRA permits challenges in federal district court of MSPB decisions involving the discrimination cases of section 7702 only 30 days after the decision was issued. See id. at 21. Otherwise, according to Solis, section 7703 limits review of MSPB decisions to federal circuit court. See id. at 21. Pointing to section 7702(a)(1), Solis argues that the CSRA allows a district court to hear an appeal of an MSPB decision on a mixed case only if the MSPB decided the issue of discrimination. See id. at 21–22. Further, Solis contends that Kloeckner departs from the CSRA provisions by claiming that any mixed case on the basis of its factual allegations, and not the factual determinations, allows an employee to appeal an MSPB decision in federal district court. See id. at 26. Solis argues that the federal circuit court has exclusive jurisdiction over Kloeckner’s mixed claim because the MSPB has not reached a decision on the issue of discrimination. See id. at 19.
The Requirements of the Anti-Discrimination Statutes
Beyond looking at select parts of CSRA, Kloeckner also contends that requiring appeals of mixed cases to be filed in federal circuit court would undermine the anti-discrimination statutes. See Brief for Petitioner at 42. Kloeckner argues that, before the CSRA was enacted, Title VII and the ADEA allowed any person, including federal employees like Kloeckner, to bring their discrimination claims in federal district court. See id. at 42-43. Additionally, Kloeckner points out that the CSRA does not ever mention that its purpose was to remove jurisdiction from the federal district court in discrimination cases. See id. at 43. Additionally, Kloeckner argues that Solis’s narrow interpretation of the CSRA would allow some district courts to decide procedural questions but not others and so lead to the very incongruity that Solis fears. See id. at 44. Further, Kloeckner argues that requiring her claim to be filed in a federal circuit court would alter the regime set up by the anti-discrimination statues and prevent legitimate claims from being heard. See id. at 53.
Rejecting Kloeckner’s characterization of anti-discrimination laws, Solis argues that the CSRA creates a comprehensive framework that a claimant needs to work within when trying to choose the best procedural path. See id. at 2. Solis argues that Congress intended that the CSRA grant the federal circuit court exclusive jurisdiction to hear mixed case claims that never reached the merits. See Brief for Respondentat 32. According to Solis, Congress intended to invest the federal circuit courts with the power to decide matters of procedure to insure uniformity in the process of appealing MSPB decisions. See id.Solis remarks that Kloeckner could have had her case reviewed by the MSPB had she chosen to pursue her claim differently and abided by the MSPB deadline to re-file in January 2007. See id. at 36. Further, Solis argues that although Title VII grants federal district courts jurisdiction to the discrimination claims of federal employees, Title VII does not grant them jurisdiction to review the procedural decisions of the MSPB. See id. at 44–45.
This appeal requires a reexamination of the overlapping statutes that govern the complaints of federal employee for wrongful employment actions and employment discrimination. Kloeckner v. Solis, 639 F.3d 834, 835 (8th Cir. 2011). Congress split jurisdiction for cases arising under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) into two categories—those that may be filed in federal district court and those that must be filed at the appellate level in federal circuit court. See id. Petitioner Kloeckner sees this bifurcation as dangerously creating a confusing labyrinth that allows legitimate claims of both wrongful employment action and wrongful discrimination to disappear without ever being fully heard. See Brief for Petitioner at 30. However, Respondent Solis sees the CSRA as creating an intricate system to promote uniformity and clarity with the processing of claims so that federal employees have an opportunity to be heard. See Brief for Respondent at 18–19. Here, the Supreme Court’s decision over whether it is a federal circuit court or a federal district court that should hear an appeal of a mixed case that was dismissed on procedural ground will affect all future mixed cases appealed from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the special governing body responsible for administering the CSRA.
Thwarting Congressional Intent
According to Kloeckner, requiring appeals of mixed cases that were decided on procedural ground to be filed in federal circuit court would undermine the purposes of anti-discrimination laws by preventing legitimate claims from being heard. See Brief for Petitioner at 60–61. Kloeckner argues that privileging the CSRA procedures over the specific requirements of anti-discrimination laws would place federal employees at a disadvantage in pursuing their discrimination claims. See id. at 61. Kloeckner further claims that Congress did not intend to supplant the procedural clarity of anti-discrimination laws with unclear administrative rules, and drawing a distinction between claims dismissed on procedure and claims dismissed on the merits would be doing just that. See id. Instead, as Kloeckner argues, because Congress intended to support the anti-discrimination laws, Congress also intended that the CSRA permit all appeals of decisions about mixed cases to be brought in district court as are other discrimination claims. See id. According to Kloeckner, Solis’s interpretation of the CSRA would undermine the Congressional intent to support processing discrimination claims. See id.
Disagreeing with Kloeckner’s interpretation of Congressional intent, Solis claims that Congress wanted the procedures of the MSPB to develop in uniform and consistent ways and so protect the rights of federal employees to pursue discrimination claims. See Brief for Respondent at 32.Solis contends that requiring mixed cases involving discrimination claims but dismissed on the procedural ground to be brought only in federal circuit courts would advance the goals of uniformity and consistency. See id. As Solis argues, the Supreme Court should honor the narrow nature of the exceptional case in which a discrimination claim involves procedural questions, because Congress intended this exception to allow discrimination claims within MSPB review only when necessary. See id. at 35. Additionally, Solis contends that permitting federal district courts to review MSPB decisions that do not address discrimination claims would subvert the goal of Congress to have a streamlined process for MSPB appeals. See id.
Discouraging Federal Employees from Pursuing Legitimate Claims of Discrimination
Kloeckner notes that limiting review to the circuit court would discourage federal employees from pursuing legitimate claims of discrimination that involve claims against negative employment actions because of the strong risk that employees will misunderstand the complicated administrative procedures for an already unclear area of regulation. See Brief for Petitioner at 61. Quoting various courts, agencies, and administrative experts, Kloeckner describes the interplay between the procedures of the CSRA and anti-discrimination laws to be so confusing and difficult to navigate that legal experts and judges offer conflicting advice as to the proper procedures. See id. at 8–10. According to Kloeckner, due to the uncertainty as to whether the January 2007 re-filing deadline controlled her subsequent appeal of the DOL rejection of her EEO complaint, requiring her to appeal the most recent MSPB decision only to the federal circuit court would prevent review of the merits of her claim. See id. at 42. In other words, Kloeckner claims that if she cannot have her case heard in the district court, she may never have her claims of discrimination and wrongful termination heard by a governing body other than her employer, the DOL. See id. at 28.
In contrast, Solis argues that allowing the federal circuit court exclusive jurisdiction to hear Kloeckner’s appeal would support employees who have legitimate claims of discrimination by providing a clear process for judicial review. See Brief for Respondent, Solis at 36. According to Solis, prohibiting federal district courts from reviewing MSPB dismissals based on procedure provides federal employees with adequate options to challenge undesirable decisions. See id. Solis contends that allowing federal district courts review would undermine this clarity of procedure and so hurt federal employees. See id. Responding to Kloeckner’s concern about her mixed case, Solis notes that allowing a federal district court to review the merits of the claim would resuscitate an untimely appeal of an old claim and reduce the incentives of other federal employees to follow administrative procedures for following their claims. See id. 38. From Solis’s perspective, acknowledging the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal circuit court would support the smooth administration of the rules of the MSPB. See id. 38.
In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether it is a federal circuit court or district court that enjoys exclusive jurisdiction to hear an appeal of an MSPB dismissal on a procedural ground of a mixed claim. This decision will not only affect Kloeckner’s attempt to sue her former employer, but it will also have implications for all CSRA mixed claims in the future. The Circuit Courts have come to different conclusions as to which court system has jurisdiction, and so the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to provide clear procedural guidelines for future claimants.