Circuit Court Grants Federal Employee Right to File Action Against Agencies for Claims Lost at Agency Level

In a major federal employee upset, the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the D.C. Circuit recently changed the way federal employees and agencies
may approach partial relief in future discrimination claims. The court held
that in Equal Employment Opportunity complaints, if a federal employee wins one
or more parts of their Title VII claim at the agency level, he or she does not
have to risk putting all claims forward on appeal if they take civil action in
district court on the issues he or she did not win at the administrative level. 

In the case of Payne v. Salazar (Secretary, Dept. of the
Interior)
, No. 09-5291 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 7, 2010), Ms. Payne, a Department
of Interior employee since 1978, worked outside Monday thru Friday for close to
16 years, allowing her to devote her weekends to her religious studies. After
suffering a near fatal allergic reaction to a bee sting in 2000, the agency
moved her to a position indoors but changed her work schedule to Wednesday thru
Sunday. Ms. Payne was denied numerous requests to change her work schedule to
accommodate her weekend religious studies; leading Ms. Payne to file an EEO
complaint alleging religious discrimination in September 2004.

Later that same month, Ms. Payne alleged retaliation for her
EEO complaint after her supervisor suddenly gave her a minute-by-minute work
schedule among other new, strict rules. The agency consolidated her original
claim of discrimination as well as her claim of retaliation and in September
2007, the Administrative Judge held that the Department of Interior
discriminated against Ms. Payne on account of her religion but did not
retaliate.

Soon
after, Ms. Payne filed suit in district court alleging the same retaliation in
violation of her Title VII rights originally raised in her consolidated EEO
case. She later added a second claim of retaliation due to a refusal to assign
her light duty work after a back injury. The district court dismissed her first
claim of retaliation for failure to state a claim holding:

a federal employee who obtains a final administrative
disposition that finds discrimination . . . as to a portion of the allegations
in the EEO Complaint, may [not] challenge in federal court just those liability
findings by the EEOC that are unfavorable to the employee . . . while
preserving those liability findings that are favorable to her.

Id.
at 45-46. The court also dismissed Ms. Payne’s second claim for failure to
exhaust administrative remedies since the retaliation did not pertain to her
original Title VII protections.

Ms.
Payne appealed the district court’s findings and in an unprecedented move, the DC
Circuit overturned the dismissal of her first retaliation claim and affirmed
the dismissal of her second. The Court rejected the government’s legal theory
that Ms. Payne’s civil action had to include the entire EEO complaint, not just
the retaliation claim she lost at the administrative level. Thus, the
government asked that Ms. Payne’s entire complaint, both her original claim of
discrimination for which she won and the retaliation claim for which she lost,
must be reviewed by the court. The Court disagreed, stating:

In sum, an employee’s right to trial de novo — whether
her employer is the federal government or a private company — means that she
is entitled to a plenary trial of whatever claims she brings to court. It does
not mean that she must sue on claims she has no interest in pursuing. Indeed,
were we to impose such a requirement, we would ourselves be treating federal
employees differently than private-sector employees.

Id at 12. What does all this
mean for federal employees? There are two outcomes to this case that may prove
to help as well as hurt federal employee claims of discrimination and
retaliation in the workplace. Firstly, federal employees may now be able to
successfully bring claims that they did not win at the agency level to court
for ruling rather than outright dismissal. Secondly, as argued by the
government in this case, agencies may be less willing to grant partial relief
to federal employees if they will not be able to appeal those decisions in
court. Thus, the outcome of this case may force agencies to approach EEO claims
as an “all or nothing” situation to prevent their appeal rights in the future.

No
matter the interpretation of this case decision by courts and federal agencies,
it is important to file all claims of discrimination and subsequent retaliation
in a timely manner to avoid any administrative issue that will allow your case
to be dismissed at the agency level. 

Payne v. Salazar

© 2016 Mathew B. Tully, Esq.. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Mathew B. Tully, Esq..

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About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel and can be reached at mtully@fedattorney.com. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call 202-787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.

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