Will More Federal Employees Be Taking Cases to Court?

The US Supreme Court sent a case back to the 9th Circuit for further review. While not deciding the issue, the Supreme Court has opened the possibility of more appeal rights to the courts for federal employees.

The Supreme Court took the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to task yesterday (the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was overturned 16 times in the last term) in a case involving a suit filed by an FAA employee who complained about being improperly singled out for random drug testing in violation of his constitutional rights. (Whitman v. Department of Transportation, U.S.S.C. No. 04-1131, June 5, 2006)

In a 3-page per curiam decision the highest court gave the 9th Circuit a lesson on how to approach the jurisdictional issue presented by the case, then remanded it for the lower court to follow its marching orders. The outcome of the case on remand could be significant for future federal employee appeals that go direct to court and bypass the agency or negotiated grievance procedures.

In this case, there is no question that Mr. Whitman is in a position that subjects him to drug and alcohol testing. However, he apparently did not like what he perceived as the "nonrandom" nature of the drug testing as it applied to him. Instead of challenging it through the negotiated grievance procedure, Mr. Whitman went straight to U.S. District Court in Alaska.

That court held that under the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, specifically Chapter 79 of Title 5 pertaining to employee grievances, it did not have jurisdiction to hear Mr. Whitman’s case. The 9th Circuit agreed with the District Court that the courts lack jurisdiction to hear Mr. Whitman’s claims which are more properly the subject of a grievance.

Undaunted, Mr. Whitman sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and his petition was granted.

The Supreme Court concluded that the first issue was to determine where the issue would fall under the statutory scheme because the Civil Service Reform Act provides different treatment for grievances depending on the nature of the employee’s claim. And, concluded the Court, the issue is not whether the Civil Service Reform Act confers jurisdiction on the issue. Rather, the issue is whether the CSRA takes away the jurisdiction of the courts.

The reason for this is because the courts normally have jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”

The action taken by the FAA could, for example, be a prohibited personnel practice–despite claims by the employee and the agency that it was not.

On remand, the lower court may look at issues such as whether the actions taken by the FAA could be a prohibited personnel practice–despite claims by the employee and the agency that it was not. Other issues are whether the administrative procedures were exhausted or whether any administrative appeal needed to be filed before an employee can proceed to court.

This is a short decision (three pages). It does not decide the issues that were raised but it does raise the possibility that some appeals by federal employees could go to court rather than through administrative procedures such as a negotiated grievance procedure.