Elgin v. Dep’t of the Treasury

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Oral argument: 
February 27, 2012

Oral argument: Feb. 27, 2012

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (Apr. 8, 2011)


Petitioners Michael Elgin and three other government employees were terminated from their jobs for failing to register with the Selective Service, as is required for government employees. Following the statutory review procedures outlined by the Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”), the Petitioners filed claims with the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”). They claimed that the registration requirement was unconstitutional as a Bill of Attainder and as an equal protection violation. The MSPB dismissed the constitutional claims for lack of jurisdiction. Rather than appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, as is directed in the CSRA, the Petitioners filed their claims in a U.S. district court, which assumed jurisdiction before dismissing the claims on other grounds. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that the district court did not possess jurisdiction, because the CSRA directs federal employee claims through the MSPB. The Petitioners argue that district courts possess original jurisdiction over their claims, because the CSRA does not explicitly preclude such jurisdiction. The Department of the Treasury, however, contends that Congress intended the CSRA scheme to be the sole channel for federal employee claims. The Supreme Court’s decision will affect the options available to federal employees pursuing employment-related claims.

Question presented

Do federal district courts have jurisdiction over constitutional claims for equitable relief brought by federal employees, as the Third and D.C. Circuits have held, or does the Civil Service Reform Act impliedly preclude that jurisdiction, as the First, Second, and Tenth Circuits have held?


May federal employees bring a constitutional claim arising from an employment-related dispute before a federal district court, or must such claims proceed through the channels outlined in the Civil Service Reform Act?


Petitioners, Michael B. Elgin, Aaron Lawson, Henry Tucker, and Christon Colby, sued their respective federal government employers in district court after each was terminated. These terminations occurred because each of the Petitioners had failed to register with the Selective Service during the period of eligibility, between the ages of 18 and 26. The Selective Service is the agency through which the government tracks males between the ages of 18 and 26 for potential conscription. Unless exempt, all male U.S. citizens and immigrants are required to register.

Elgin worked for the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), which learned of Elgin’s failure to register with the Selective Service during a routine background check. The IRS reported this failure to the Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”), which began an investigation. Elgin’s employment would be allowed to continue, if the OPM found that his failure to register was not knowing and willful. Elgin argued that he was unaware of the Selective Service registration requirement, claiming that at age 18 he was supporting his son, trying to finish high school, and “virtually homeless.” The OPM found that the failure to register was knowing and willful, and, despite the IRS’s request for reconsideration, Elgin’s employment was terminated.

Similarly, Lawson, a helicopter captain for the Forest Service, was terminated from his employment when the Forest Service learned that he had not registered with the Selective Service. While Lawson claimed that he did register with the Selective Service at age 18, the OPM claimed that there was no record of that registration. The OPM declined to find that the lack of registration was without knowledge or unwillful. Lawson was then terminated.

Tucker resigned from his position with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) when the FDIC learned of his failure to register with the Selective Service. . He then received a job offer from the National Institutes of Health, which soon withdrew its offer upon learning that Tucker had failed to register. Tucker argued that the failure was not knowing or willful, claiming that his mother had left him at the age of 16 and that he frequently moved residence. However, the OPM found that Tucker's failure to register was knowing and willful.

Colby, an employee of the IRS, also failed to register for the Selective Service. . Colby argued that his failure was not knowing or willful, because at age 18 he moved away from his parents without knowledge of the requirement. The OPM, nonetheless, found that his failure to register was knowing and willful. The IRS appealed the OPM decision on Colby’s behalf, but the OPM affirmed its original decision. Colby was then terminated from the IRS.

The Petitioners alleged that 50 U.S.C. Appendix § 453, which requires registration for the Selective Service, and 5 U.S.C. § 3328, which bars men from government employment who have knowingly and willfully failed to register with the Selective Service, are unconstitutional when considered together. Elgin argued that the two statutes together create a Bill of Attainder, and violate equal protection on the basis of gender, because only men are required to register for Selective Service. Elgin filed this constitutional claim relating to his termination with the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”), pursuant to the procedure outlined in the Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”). The MSPB dismissed his claim for lack of jurisdiction. The Petitioners, together, then bypassed further CSRA procedures and filed their claim directly in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. . The district court found that it had jurisdiction, but dismissed the equal protection claim on the grounds that the Petitioners had a statutory procedure by which they could challenge their terminations. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the matter, because judicial review of federal employment disputes is handled exclusively through CSRA procedures. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 17, 2011.


This case addresses whether federal employees who have failed to register for the Selective Service have a sufficient opportunity for judicial review of a constitutional claim relating to their disputed termination. Petitioners Michael B. Elgin, Aaron Lawson, Henry Tucker, and Christon Colby (collectively “Elgin”) argue that, read together, 50 U.S.C. Appendix § 453 and 5 U.S.C. § 3328 form an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder, and violate equal protection by discriminating on the basis of gender. Elgin argues that, without the jurisdiction of the district court, federal employees would have no access to judicial review for a constitutional claim relating to federal employment. The Department of the Treasury (the “Treasury”), as Respondent, argues that Elgin had the opportunity for judicial review via the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”), as the Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”) provides. The Treasury claims that CSRA, enacted to promote streamlined judicial review, provides a forum for constitutional claims through appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Access to Relief v. Efficiency under the CSRA

In support of Elgin, attorney Elaine Mittleman argues that, although the CSRA established a process by which federal employment disputes can be adjudicated, the CSRA leaves many federal employees without protection. . While the CSRA allows government employees to dispute “personnel actions” before the MSPB, Mittleman points out that constitutional claims do not qualify as personnel actions, and are effectively precluded. While courts have argued that Congress prescribed the denial of judicial review for constitutional claims arising from federal employment, Mittleman argues that federal employees must have direct access to federal courts as a constitutional right, regardless of congressional intent. Because state and local workers do not fall under the CSRA, they enjoy access to federal courts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For federal employees, the CSRA reviews constitutional claims and applies a different standard than that which would be applied by federal courts. Therefore, Mittleman argues that the effect of the CSRA is to give state and municipal employees more rights than federal employees, due to state and municipal employees' free access to federal courts.

The Treasury argues that the purpose of the CSRA was to streamline judicial review of federal employment claims. If Elgin were allowed to file the constitutional claim directly in district court, thereby bifurcating the claim or bypassing the CSRA altogether, the Treasury asserts that the efficiency goals of the CSRA would be thwarted. The Treasury claims that CSRA remedies must be deemed exclusive in order to reflect Congress’s intent to streamline the process of federal employment dispute review. . Furthermore, the Treasury argues that recognizing the exclusivity of the CSRA procedure allows courts to practice judicial efficiency and constitutional avoidance. . Constitutional avoidance allows administrative courts to reach a favorable decision on non-constitutional grounds, without reaching constitutional issues. Without such an opportunity, courts would unnecessarily expend resources on moot constitutional issues, according to the Treasury. . Further, the Treasury argues, the CSRA does provide for judicial review of constitutional claims through the MSPB, and the opportunity for appeal to the Federal Circuit. However, if CSRA procedure is not made the exclusive avenue for relief, plaintiffs with the option to sue in district court may do so, and benefits resulting from the efficiency of the CSRA will be lost.


The Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”) provides for review of federal employee claims through the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”), with the opportunity to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Petitioners Michael B. Elgin, Aaron Lawson, Henry Tucker, and Christon Colby (collectively “Elgin”) insist that, because Congress did not intend for constitutional claims (as opposed to statutory claims) to be heard for the first time in the Federal Circuit, federal district courts must possess jurisdiction. Respondent, the Department of the Treasury (the “Treasury”), refutes each of Elgin’s arguments and advocates for a strict interpretation of the CSRA, as providing an exclusive channel for all federal employee claims.

Federal Circuit as First Forum for Constitutional Claims

Elgin argues that it would be inappropriate to have the Federal Circuit as the first forum for constitutional claims brought by federal employees, and that federal district courts must therefore have jurisdiction. The Federal Circuit, Elgin contends, derives its jurisdiction over federal employee claims from the original jurisdiction that the MSPB holds over such claims. The MSPB, however, does not have the authority to hear a federal employee’s constitutional claims, because the MSPB is part of a limited scheme of administrative review, and does not have the expertise or ability to review a challenge of a statute’s constitutionality. Since the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction is derivative of the MSPB’s, and the MSPB has no authority to hear constitutional claims, the Federal Circuit is not an appropriate forum.

In contrast, the Treasury argues that the Federal Circuit may hear a constitutional claim for the first time on appeal. The Treasury insists that the CSRA scheme directing federal employees’ employment-related claims - first to the MSPB, then to the Federal Circuit - is intended to include all types of claims. Therefore, the Treasury contends, a constitutional claim should proceed as the scheme provides; but, since the MSPB could not rule on a constitutional claim, that claim would, incidentally, be heard for the first time on appeal. In support, the Treasury contends that Supreme Court precedent indicates similar contexts in which it is acceptable for constitutional claims to be heard for the first time on appeal. Further, the Treasury asserts, the CSRA explicitly provides for the Federal Circuit to reverse any unlawful action taken by the MSPB, which implicitly would include any action improperly taken upon a constitutional issue.

Elgin further insists that Federal Circuit review, in the first instance, is inappropriate, because the claims require the development of a factual record, which only the lower court may do. The Federal Circuit is limited to the record created by the MSPB, which Elgin argues is problematic; in their case, the MSPB dismissed the constitutional claims for lack of jurisdiction, and no record was developed for those issues. Elgin contends that certain facts absent from the MSPB record, such as evidence of women’s role in the military, are essential to his asserted constitutional claims. Because the Federal Circuit is unable to develop a factual record of its own, Elgin asserts that it is forced to rely on the record that the MSPB develops. Therefore, Elgin claims, the Treasury’s proffered scheme would have the Federal Circuit review constitutional claims in an incomplete form.

The Treasury contends that an alleged lack of a factual record from the MSPB would not prevent the Federal Circuit from administering a complete review of constitutional claims. The Treasury claims that, with regard to constitutional issues, it is fully within the Federal Circuit’s purview to note the type of facts that would come up in a constitutional issue, and therefore that it is not necessary to depend on a lower court for the development of such facts. The types of facts that would assist a court in judging constitutionality, the Treasury asserts, are determinable by the Federal Circuit in the first instance via judicial notice. The Treasury further argues that, even where judicial notice would not suffice, Elgin could put forth evidence regarding his constitutional claims for the MSPB record, even though the MSPB could not rule on the issue, because the MSPB abides by lenient evidentiary rules.

Standard of Review for Congressional Intent

Elgin insists that the CSRA has not divested the federal district courts of jurisdiction over employment-related constitutional claims. Elgin asserts that, because Congress would not deliberately prohibit judicial review of a claim, and the MSPB lacks the ability to determine constitutional claims, the district courts must have jurisdiction. Further, if Congress had intended to take cases out of the federal courts entirely, it would have clearly stated that intention. Elgin contends that there is no such stated intent, and that the Treasury must therefore make a heightened showing of Congressional intent, in order to prove that the constitutional claims are not entitled to review in federal district court.

The Treasury argues that the heightened standard requiring a clear statement of Congressional intent is not implicated, because the CSRA scheme does not preclude review—it merely channels it. The Treasury offers a lower standard: that Congressional intent to direct cases toward a particular channel need only be “fairly discernible.” The Treasury contends that the CSRA scheme meets this standard, because the statute’s language, structure, purpose, and legislative history sufficiently indicate the intention that federal employee claims be channeled through the MSPB, to the exclusion of federal district courts.

Remedial Avenues Available to Federal Employees

Elgin asserts that, while the CSRA scheme provides an avenue for federal employee claims, it does not divest federal district courts of jurisdiction for claims arising under the Constitution. Elgin invokes 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which confers original jurisdiction of all constitutional claims on federal district courts, to support the argument that the CSRA scheme is intended to exist side-by-side with district court jurisdiction. Regardless of whether the CSRA scheme provides a specific statutory authority to sue, Elgin argues that the constitutionality of a federal statute may always be challenged under §1331. Ultimately, Elgin contends, the CSRA does not remove the jurisdiction of the federal district courts, and he is free to pursue his constitutional claims through that avenue.

In contrast, the Treasury points to the history and purpose of the CSRA to insist that Congress intended the MSPB channel to be the exclusive avenue of relief for all claims brought by federal employees. The Treasury emphasizes the structure and purpose of the CSRA, which imposes a statutory review scheme to achieve efficiency in the judicial review of federal employee claims. It would defy the very purpose of the CSRA, the Treasury claims, to allow Elgin and similarly situated federal employees to circumvent the scheme altogether.

Elgin contends that the CSRA scheme should except "facial constitutional claims". These claims, Elgin argues, are entirely unrelated to CSRA procedures and thus should go directly to the federal district court, collateral to any other claims that may be appropriately before the MSPB. Elgin points to Supreme Court precedent to assert that a federal district court should hear a claim challenging the constitutionality of the background statute, even though there is an administrative review scheme in place. Elgin contends that it is acceptable to circumvent the CSRA scheme, because, while its administrative review procedure can address constitutional challenges to the manner in which the statute is applied, the constitutionality of the statute itself is properly addressed in federal district court.

The Treasury dismisses Elgin’s proposed exception as opaque and impractical. The Treasury asserts that recognizing a distinction between types of constitutional claims would invite a flood of litigation to determine the line between “facial” and “as-applied” constitutional claims. This, according to the Treasury, would countervail the efficiency goals that the CSRA seeks to achieve by channeling all federal employee claims exclusively to the MSPB. Furthermore, the Treasury asserts that the Federal Circuit has long been recognized for its “primacy for judicial review,” and thus it would be illogical to create a particular class of claims that must go to the district courts instead of the Federal Circuit.


The Petitioners ("Elgin") argue that the federal district courts have jurisdiction over federal employees’ constitutional claims, because the CSRA does not explicitly preclude such jurisdiction. Further, Elgin contends that the MSPB lacks the expertise and authority to review constitutional claims, so a collateral claim in district court is appropriate when the claim is connected with the constitutionality of the underlying statute. The Treasury, however, asserts that Elgin’s interpretation would undercut the very purpose of the CSRA, by countervailing the CSRA's efficiency goals. The Treasury also argues that the CSRA scheme can address constitutional claims with the same accuracy and expertise as federal district courts. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect federal employees’ options in pursuing their employment-related claims.


Prepared by: Amanda Bradley and Brooks Kaufman

Edited by: Jacqueline Bendert

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