SCOTUS; District Court Has Original Jurisdiction in MSPB 'Mixed Cases'

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

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals generally hears reviews from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The Supreme Court clarified an exception to that rule this week.

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 whether the MSPB decided her case on procedural grounds or on the merits.

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

The circuit split revolved around a misunderstanding of how the Civil Service Reform Act should be interpreted. The Supreme Court's Kloeckner opinion resolves the split by simply turning to the letter of the law.

One section, 5 U.S.C. §7703(b)(1), provides that petitions to review the MSPB's final decisions should be filed in the Federal Circuit. That statute includes an exception. In §7703(b)(2), Congress stipulated that cases of discrimination subject to [5 U.S.C. §7702]" shall be filed in district court.

The Court observed that, under §7702(a)(1), the "cases of discrimination subject to [§7702]" are mixed cases -- those appealable to the MSPB and alleging discrimination. Thus, mixed cases should be filed in the district court.

Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Elena Kagan noted, "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. But even within the most intricate and complex systems, some things are plain. So it is in this case, where two sections of the CSRA, read naturally, direct employees like Kloeckner to district court."

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