The justices said the claim should not be filed in the Washington-based Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, even if the Merit Systems Protection Board decided the claim on procedural grounds or on the merits.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 allows a federal employee who is subjected to a particularly serious personnel action. such as a discharge or a demotion, to appeal to the board.
When an employee contends the agency action was based on discrimination, it is known as a "mixed case."
In a mixed case, the law says an employee can file a complaint with the department, appeal to the board or sue in U.S. District Court. A provision of the Civil Service Reform Act says petitions of review may be filed with the Federal Circuit, except for cases of discrimination claims, which should be filed in U.S. District Court.
Carolyn Kloeckner, an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor, filed a complaint in 2005 with the department's civil rights office alleging she had been subjected to unlawful sex and age discrimination because of a hostile work environment.
Kloeckner was fired while her complaint was before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and she took her case to the board. When the board eventually dismissed she took her complaint to the U.S. District Court. A federal judge dismissed her claim for lack of jurisdiction, and said she should take it to the Federal Circuit appeals court in Washington. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, based in St. Louis, agreed.
But on review a unanimous opinion by Justice Elena Kagan said the claim was rightly filed in U.S. District Court, even if the board rules on procedural grounds or the merits. She said the government's view that procedural claims should be taken to the Federal Circuit was not supported by the statute.
The ruling reverses the appeals court and sends the case back down for a new hearing based on the unanimous opinion.