A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday cut through the thicket of civil service law to rule in favor of federal employees in a professorial decision written by Justice Elena Kagan. 

The court ruled in Kloeckner v. Solis that federal employees must file in federal district court when they appeal adverse personnel decisions of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Some lower courts had said such appeals had to be filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, resulting in confusion that left some federal employees out of luck when they filed in the wrong court.

That is what happened when Labor Department employee Carolyn Kloeckner filed a claim of workplace discrimination after she had been sexually harassed and then fired when she complained. The Merit Systems Protection Board dismissed her case on procedural grounds, making it a “mixed case” that could have been filed, under different interpretations of the law, either at the district court or the Federal Circuit. She filed it in district court, where it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

When the case arrived at the high court, it was a rare instance in which no amicus curiae briefs were filed. But AARP said it was watching the case as one of “utmost importance” to federal employees in making sure their valid appeals were not dismissed.

Monday’s outcome was foreshadowed during oral argument in October. The justices then searched for the simplest and clearest rule to govern the situation. University of Washington School of Law professor Eric Schnapper, who represented Kloeckner, seemed to give them what they sought when he asked for a declaration that district court was the right venue.

“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,” wrote Kagan in her opinion for the court. “But even within the most intricate and complex systems, some things are plain. So it is in this case, where two sections of the [Civil Service Reform Act], read naturally, direct employees like Kloeckner to district court.”

Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, then directed the reader through a teacher’s guided tour of the relevant provisions of federal law. “Begin with§7703,” she stated, and the next paragraph began, “Turn next to §7702,” concluding with, “Now just put §7703 and §7702 together—say, in the form of a syllogism, to make the point obvious.”

Kagan is also the former solicitor general, and she had disapproving words for the arguments made by the government in favor of a more complicated approach that would have some MSPB appeals filed at district court, and others at the Federal Circuit. “We return from the Government’s mazelike tour of the [Civil Service Reform Act], persuaded only that the merits-procedure distinction is a contrivance, found nowhere in the statute’s provisions on judicial review,” Kagan wrote.

She then laid out the government’s rationale in detail, concluding, “If you need to take a deep breath after all that, you’re not alone. It would be hard to dream up a more round-about way of bifurcating judicial review of the MSPB’s rulings in mixed cases.” Kagan went on to dismantle other features of the solicitor general’s case, ending with what she described as “the final nail in the coffin bearing the government’s argument.”

Tony Mauro can be contacted at tmauro@alm.com.