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Supreme Court May Limit Federal Employees’ Access to Federal Court to Challenge Constitutionality of Terminations

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On October 17, 2011, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Elgin v. United States Dept. of the Treasury and will decide whether federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear constitutional claims brought by federal employees seeking equitable relief. Early in 2012, the Supreme Court will review the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which held in a divided panel decision that discharged federal employees seeking to challenge their terminations on constitutional grounds do not have access to federal district courts. Without access to federal district courts to hear such claims, the Petitioners in Elgin argue, they would be left without an adequate forum to address violations of their constitutional rights. Currently, federal appellate courts are split over the question of whether terminated federal employees may bring suit in federal district courts alleging that the government violated their constitutional rights. The Supreme Court’s decision in Elgin will have major implications for federal employees who wish to challenge adverse employment actions on constitutional grounds.

The Petitioners in Elgin are former federal employees who were terminated under 5 U.S.C. § 3328, which permanently bars from federal employment men who knowingly and willfully fail to register with the Selective Service upon reaching the age of 18. Each of the Petitioners in Elgin claims that he did not knowingly or willfully violate the statute; some were unaware of the Selective Service registration requirement, and others believed that they had met the requirement, despite the Selective Service having no record of their registration.

After the Department of the Treasury terminated his employment, Petitioner Elgin appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) , arguing both that 5 U.S.C. § 3328 is an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder and that the statute subjected him to discrimination on the basis of sex because the requirement to register with the Selective Service applies only to men. The Constitution prohibits Bills of Attainder, laws that declare an individual or a group of people guilty of a crime and then impose punishment without a trial. The MSPB dismissed Elgin’s appeal, claiming that it lacked jurisdiction because Congress did not grant the MSPB authority to review the constitutionality of statutes. Joined by three other former federal employees, Elgin then filed suit against the government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts claiming that the lifetime bar on federal employment for men who failed to register with the Selective Service was unconstitutional. The employees sought reinstatement of their employment.

The District Court initially granted the Petitioners’ motion for partial summary judgment and held that the statute was, indeed, a Bill of Attainder. The lower court also partially granted the Government’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the Selective Service system did not deprive the Petitioners of equal protection. The Government then sought reconsideration of the court’s partial grant of summary judgment on the merits, raising a new argument that federal district courts altogether lack subject matter jurisdiction to review federal employment decisions because the CSRA precludes such district court review. The District Court held that it does have jurisdiction over constitutional claims brought by federal employees, but reversed its previous finding that the statute in question is a Bill of Attainder. The former employees then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision on the merits of the claims. However, in a split decision, the First Circuit reversed the District Court’s finding on the question of jurisdiction.

The First Circuit held that that the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), 92 Stat. 1111 et seq., provides the exclusive remedy for former federal employees who wish to challenge the constitutionality of a termination. According to the appeals court, the CSRA does not allow employees direct access to federal district courts for review of constitutional claims. Federal employees covered under the CSRA are entitled to appeal terminations to the MSPB – an independent governmental agency – and thereafter may appeal an MSPB decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit has repeatedly held that the scope of subject matter jurisdiction of both the Federal Circuit and the MSPB is identical. In a concurring opinion, Judge Stahl noted that the CSRA does not explicitly preclude discharged federal employees from bringing suit in federal district courts.

The First Circuit’s intra-court disagreement is not unique; other federal circuits have been similarly divided on the question of district court jurisdiction over federal employee constitutional claims for equitable relief. The result is a significant circuit split: The First, Second, and Tenth Circuits have held that the CSRA impliedly precludes federal district courts from hearing the constitutional claims of federal employees seeking injunctive or other forms of equitable relief, whereas the Third and D.C. Circuits have held that the CSRA does not preclude federal district courts from exercising such jurisdiction (with the Ninth Circuit holding that at least in some circumstances it is allowed). Three others circuits have acknowledged the split but have avoided the question entirely.

The circuits that limit federal court jurisdiction on these matters reason that because the CSRA provides a comprehensive framework for addressing the employment rights of federal employees, it impliedly precludes federal court jurisdiction. Furthermore, these circuits have held that the CSRA precludes both claims for monetary and equitable relief.

In urging the Supreme Court to grant review of the First Circuit’s decision, the Petitioners in Elgin relied for support on a line of decisions in which federal district courts allowed federal employees to seek equitable relief for constitutional claims, though the court rejected related claims for monetary damages. In one such case, Hubbard v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held that the CSRA does indeed provide federal employees a comprehensive remedial framework that precludes employees from seeking damages in federal court as a remedy for constitutional violations. The Court went on to point out that the statute does not, however, explicitly prohibit federal district courts from granting injunctive relief to remedy unconstitutional employment actions by federal agencies. In Spagnola v. Mathis, the D.C. Circuit reaffirmed the right of federal employees to seek equitable relief for constitutional violations. Consistent with these decisions, Elgin Petitioners contend that because federal courts have traditionally granted equitable relief as a remedy for violations of constitutional rights, courts should not interpret remedial statutes such as the CSRA to preclude equitable relief unless Congress explicitly provides a statement to that effect in the statute.

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