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Supreme Court rules against federal government on discrimination procedure

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The Supreme Court says federal employees can appeal Merit Systems Protection Board decisions on discrimination in district court, in a Dec. 10 ruling against the federal government.

The case concerned a former Labor Department employee named Carolyn Kloeckner, who said her hostile work environment constituted sex and age discrimination. She was later fired, and said that was also a result of discrimination.

Her lawsuit passed between the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When it returned to the MSPB, the board dismissed her case because it came back after a deadline the board had previously set for the case.

Kloeckner appealed that action in district court, which dismissed her complaint, agreeing with the government that appeals dismissed for procedural reasons--not on their merits--should be heard in federal appeals court instead.

The Supreme Court decision (.pdf), which was unanimous, overturned the district court ruling. In the court's opinion, Justice Elana Kagan writes that the government's "merits-procedure distinction is a contrivance."

"It would be hard to dream up a more roundabout way of bifurcating judicial review of the MSPB's rulings in mixed cases," she says. Mixed cases are those where employees say they were unjustly fired or demoted and also say their employer violated discrimination law, as Kloeckner did.

Special procedures do govern those cases under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. "But even within the most intricate and complex systems, some things are plain," Kagan writes.

She calls the government's argument for bifurcating cases decided on merit or procedural grounds "mazelike" and "tortuous," adding, "If Congress had wanted to send merits decisions to district court and procedural dismissals to the Federal Circuit, it could just have said so."

For more:
- download the decision in Kloeckner v. Solis (.pdf)

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