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Supreme Court Decision Update - Whitman v. Department of Transportation

supreme1.jpgWhile there are two longish-Supreme Court decisions today, the Supremes also gave us a real nice short one, the three-page Whitman v. Department of Transportation (PDF of the opinion). This case focus on the narrow issue of whether or not federal courts have jurisdiction to hear grievances of federal employees who are subject to collective-bargaining agreements, and the answer is that the Court isn’t going to decide it at this time because it doesn’t know enough about the underlying case.

QuizLaw Analysis: The Court doesn’t give us any real substantive law here but if I were to try to read the Court’s mind (a dangerous game, such predictions are), I suspect the Court would ultimately find that federal courts do have jurisdiction to hear these cases, based on the broad scope of general jurisdiction which has been granted to all federal courts.

Whitman was an FAA employee and, as such, was subject to their drug and alcohol test requirements. After being tested in what he believed to be a nonrandom fashion, Whitman sued the FAA for alleged violations of his constitutional rights, as well as alleged violations of a federal statute. However, he did not follow the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement he was subject to, which required him to first use established grievance procedures to resolve his issues before filing any lawsuit. These procedures, set up by the FAA, track certain sections and requirements of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (the “CSRA”).

The District Court hearing Whitman’s claims determined that, pursuant to the provisions of the CSRA, it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. This decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit looked to the federal statute which governs labor management of federal employees and their grievances, 5 U.S.C. § 7121(a)(1), and determined that it does not expressly give the federal courts any jurisdiction to hear employment-related claims that fall within a federal employee’s collective-bargaining agreement.

The Supreme’s decision for this case is what’s known as a “per curiam” decision, meaning the opinion is not issued in the name of a specific justice, as is usually the case. Essentially, it’s like a unanimous opinion, but the written decision is not tied to, or associated with, any one specific justice. In the per curiam decision, the Supremes begin by agreeing with the Ninth Circuit’s logic regarding § 7121(a)(1). However, they also note that a “familiar” statute grants all federal courts general jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States” (this statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, is quite familiar to all first-year law students who have taken the painfully slow Civil Procedure course). This means that the issue here is whether section 7121(a)(1) actually limits/precludes the broad general jurisdiction of federal courts, or whether it simply does not confer any additional jurisdiction of its own. The Court reasons that an analysis of whether Whitman’s claims are precluded first requires a look into the specifics of his claims, as the CSRA treats different claims and grievances in a different manner. Thus, the Court remands the case to the Ninth Circuit so that the Court of Appeals can get into the specifics a little more.

Justice Alito was not involved in this decision (presumably because it was argued before he joined the Supremes).