Lindahl v. Office of Personnel Management
Decided on Mar. 20, 1985; 470 US 768


A. Issues Discussed:  Governmental Authority (regulation) 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does 5 U.S.C. § 8347(c) bar judicial review altogether of a MSPB  (Merit Systems Protection Board) judgment affirming the denial by OPM (Office of Personnel Management) of a disability retirement claim, or does it bar review only of factual determinations while permitting review for alleged errors of law and procedure?

If judicial review for alleged errors of law is permitted, does the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit have jurisdiction directly to review MSPB decisions in such cases, or does an applicant whose appeal is rejected by the MSPB must instead file a Tucker Act claim in the United States Claims Court or a United States district court, from which an appeal could then be taken to the Federal Circuit?


A. Background:

Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 8347(d), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) determines questions of disability and dependency in administering the Federal Government's provision of annuities to retired federal employees and their dependents. Subject to administrative review by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), OPM's “decisions... concerning these matters are final and conclusive and are not subject to review."

In 1979, Lindahl (Petitioner), employed as a  civilian security guard at a naval shipyard, was informed by the Navy that he was to be retired on disability resulting from acute and chronic bronchitis. However, several months after petitioner had been retired, OPM denied his application for a disability retirement annuity on the ground that the evidence failed to establish that his disability was severe enough to prevent him from performing his job.  Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 8347(d), Lindahl appealed this decision to the MSPB. The Board sustained OPM's denial, finding that Lindahl had not demonstrated sufficient evidence that he was disabled within the Retirement Act standards.

Lindahl then filed a complaint in the Court of Claims, invoking jurisdiction under 5 U.S.C. § 7703 (which at the time provided for review of MSPB decisions).  After § 7703 was amended in 1982, the case was transferred to the Federal Circuit system, which dismissed the complaint as barred by § 8347(c).  While acknowledging that courts had previously interpreted § 8347(c) to permit judicial review of alleged legal and procedural errors, the court found that such interpretation was wrong and, in any event, overruled.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to review the jurisdictional dispute.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
John Murcko, by appointment of the Court, argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner. Edwin S. Kneedler argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General Willard, Deputy Solicitor General Geller, David M. Cohen, William G. Kanter, and Robert A. Reutershan.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union by Burt Neuborne; for the AFL-CIO, by Stuart A. Kirsch and Mark D. Roth; for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees by Irving Kator, Joseph B. Scott, James H. Heller, and Michael J. Kator; for Willard Bronger, et al., by Max G. Brittain, Jr.; and for Margaret Cheeseman, et al., by Edith U. Fierst.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

“[5 U.S.C.] § 8347(c) imposes a special and unusual restriction on judicial examination, and under it courts are not as free to review Commission retirement decisions as they would be if the ‘finality’ clause were not there...

The Federal [Court] erred in concluding that [5 U.S.C.] § 8347(c), as amended, altogether bars judicial review of MSPB decision in retirement disability cases.  The factual underpinnings of disability determination may not be judicially reviewed, review is available to determine whether there has been a substantial departure from important procedural rights, a misconstruction of the governing legislation, or some like error going to the heart of the administrative determination...

The respondent has skillfully parsed the legislative history and culled every possible nuance and ambiguity, but it has failed to advance a single argument why Congress would have intended to depart from the plain jurisdictional language in cases of disability retirement appeals and to require, instead, that such appeals be reviewed for legal and procedural error first by the Claims Court or a district court, and then all over again by the Federal Circuit. That Congress could not have intended such a wasteful exercise is reinforced by § 8347(d)(2), which explicitly provides that one subclass of disability retirement cases - those involving involuntary dismissals based on an individual's alleged mental disability - are appealable directly from the MSPB to the Federal Circuit... We can discern no reason why Congress would have intended that mental disability cases, which permit for evidentiary review, be channeled to an appellate forum, while intending that other retirement cases, which permit only for Scroggins review, be channeled to a trial forum for nonevidentiary review and then to the Federal Circuit for performance of the identical review...

An applicant, such as petitioner, whose appeal is rejected by the MSPB is not required to file a Tucker Act suit in the Claims Court or a district court, and then seek review of any adverse decision in the Federal Circuit. To require such a two-step judicial process would not accord with the jurisdictional framework established by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) and the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982...

Moreover... there frequently will be disputes - as in this case - as to whether an employee's retirement was involuntary or voluntary, and accordingly as to whether the appeal might properly be characterized as an adverse action, rather than as a simple disability retirement matter... In the absence of any indication in the legislative history or persuasive functional argument to the contrary, we cannot assume that Congress intended to create such a bizarre jurisdictional patchwork... Accordingly, we conclude that MSPB decisions concerning retirement disability claims are reviewable in the first instance by the Federal Circuit pursuant to the jurisdictional grants in 5 U.S.C. § 7703(b)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(9).

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined the majority)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined the majority)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined the majority)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined the majority)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined White’s dissent)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined White’s dissent)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined White’s dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the lower court's decision in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.