Lindahl v. OPM
470 U.S. 768 (1985)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Lindahl v. OPM, 470 U.S. 768 (1985)

Lindahl v. Office of Personnel Management

No. 83-5954

Argued December 3, 1984

Decided March 20, 1985

470 U.S. 768




The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) "determine[s] questions of disability and dependency" in administering the Federal Government's disability retirement program. 5 U.S.C. § 8347(c). Its "decisions . . . concerning these matters are final and conclusive, and are not subject to review," ibid., except to the extent that administrative review by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is provided by § 8347(d)(1). In 1979, petitioner, who was employed as a 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, and he did not contest this assessment. But 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. Petitioner appealed to the MSPB, which sustained the denial. He 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 in that court and the regional courts of appeals) and the Tucker Act. He alleged that the MSPB had violated its regulations by placing the burden of proving disability on him, rather than requiring the Navy to disprove disability, and that the Navy had dismissed him while he was attempting to obtain disability retirement benefits, in violation of regulations requiring an agency that initiates a disability retirement action to retain the employee pending OPM's resolution of the employee's disability status. After § 7703 was amended in 1982, the case was transferred to the Federal Circuit, which dismissed the complaint as barred by § 8347(c). The court concluded that the plain words of § 8347(c), along with the structure of the civil service laws and the import of a 1980 amendment adding § 8347(d)(2) -- which provides for both MSPB and judicial review of involuntary mental disability retirement decisions -- overcome the usual presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action, and, except as qualified by § 8347(d)(2), preclude any judicial review of OPM decisions in voluntary disability retirement cases. While acknowledging that courts had previously interpreted § 8347(c) to permit judicial review

Page 470 U. S. 769

of alleged legal and procedural errors, the court found that such interpretation was wrong and, in any event, overruled by the 1980 amendment.


1. Section 8347(c) does not bar judicial review altogether of an MSPB judgment affirming OPM's denial of a disability retirement claim, but bars review only of factual determinations, while permitting review 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.'"

Pp. 470 U. S. 778-791.

(a) It is "only upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence' of a contrary legislative intent" that access to judicial review will be restricted. Whether a statute precludes judicial review

"is determined not only from its express language, but also from the structure of the statutory scheme, its objectives, its legislative history, and the nature of the administrative action involved."

Pp. 470 U. S. 778-779.

(b) While § 8347(c) plausibly can be read as imposing an absolute bar to judicial review, it also quite naturally can be read as precluding review only of OPM's factual determinations about questions of disability and dependency. Under this latter reading, the factual "question" whether an applicant is disabled is quite distinct from questions of what laws and procedures OPM must apply in administering the Civil Service Retirement Act. In addition, the application of § 8347(c) as completely preclusive is problematic when a disability applicant, as here, challenges not only OPM's determinations but also the standards and procedures used by the MSPB in reviewing those determinations. Finally, Congress' failure to use the unambiguous and comprehensive language in § 8347(c) that it typically uses when intending to bar all judicial review reinforces the possibility that the finality bar may extend only to OPM's factual determinations with respect to disability questions. Pp. 470 U. S. 779-780.

(c) Under the Scroggins standard (so-called after Scroggins v. United States, 184 Ct.Cl. 530, 397 F.2d 295, cert. denied, 393 U.S. 952), courts prior to the 1980 amendment had interpreted § 8347(c) as allowing for review of legal and procedural errors in disability retirement decisions. There is nothing in the legislative history of the 1980 amendment adding § 8347(d)(2) to suggest that Congress intended to discard the Scroggins standard. To the contrary, the legislative history demonstrates that Congress was well aware of the Scroggins standard, amended § 8347 on its understanding that that standard applied to judicial review of disability retirement decisions generally, and intended that Scroggins review continue except to the extent augmented by the more exacting standards of § 8347(d)(2). Pp. 470 U. S. 780-791.

Page 470 U. S. 770

2. The Federal Circuit has jurisdiction directly to review MSPB disability retirement decisions pursuant to the jurisdictional grants in 5 U.S.C. § 7703(b)(1), providing that a petition to review a final decision of the MSPB shall be filed in the Federal Circuit, and 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(9), providing the Circuit with exclusive jurisdiction of an appeal from a final decision of the MSPB. Pp. 470 U. S. 791-799.

(a) 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 (FCIA). Sections 7703(b)(1) and 1295(a)(9) together provide the Federal Circuit with exclusive jurisdiction over MSPB decisions, and do not admit any exceptions for disability retirement claims. Pp. 470 U. S. 791-796.

(b) Congress in the FCIA intended to channel those Tucker Act cases in which the Court of Claims performed an appellate function into the Federal Circuit, and to leave cases requiring de novo factfinding in the Claims Court and district courts. Review of an MSPB order involving a disability retirement claim not only is explicitly encompassed in the Federal Circuit's jurisdiction, but also makes logical sense, given that the court considers only legal and procedural questions, and does not review the factual bases of the administrative decision. A contrary conclusion would result in exactly the sort of "duplicative, wasteful and inefficient" judicial review that the CSRA and FCIA were intended to eradicate. Pp. 470 U. S. 796-799.

718 F.2d 391, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 470 U. S. 800.

Page 470 U. S. 771

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) "determine[s] questions of disability and dependency" in administering the Federal Government's provision of annuities to retired employees and their dependents. 5 U.S.C. § 8347(c). Subject to administrative review by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), § 8347(d)(1), OPM's "decisions . . . concerning these matters are final and conclusive and are not subject to review," § 8347(c). This case presents two questions of substantial importance to the administration of the Government's retirement annuity program. The first is whether § 8347(c) bars judicial review altogether of an MSPB judgment affirming the denial by OPM of a disability retirement claim, or bars review only of factual determinations, while permitting review for alleged errors of law and procedure. If judicial review is available to the latter, limited extent, a second question arises: whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction directly to review MSPB decisions in such cases, or whether 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.



These questions implicate a host of overlapping statutory schemes, which we review before turning to the case at hand.

The Civil Service Retirement Act (Retirement Act). [Footnote 1] Government employees who are covered by the Retirement

Page 470 U. S. 772

Act are required to contribute a portion of their salaries to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. 5 U.S.C. §§ 8334(a), (b). The amount of retirement annuity is based on the employee's average pay and years of federal service. § 8339. The Retirement Act provides for several types of annuities; at issue here are disability retirement annuities. Pursuant to § 8337, a covered employee who has completed at least five years of federal civilian service is eligible for an immediate annuity if found "disabled," whether he is retired on his own application ("voluntary" retirement) or on the application of his employing agency ("involuntary" retirement). § 8337(a). [Footnote 2]

Although the Retirement Act at no time has contained a general judicial review provision, this Court concluded almost 50 years ago that a retired employee may secure judicial review of an agency denial of his annuity claim by invoking the district courts' Tucker Act jurisdiction to entertain monetary claims against the United States. Dismuke v. United States,297 U. S. 167 (1936). The Court reasoned:

"[I]n the absence of compelling language, resort to the courts to assert a right which the statute creates will be deemed to be curtailed only so far as authority to decide is given to the administrative officer. . . . If he is authorized to determine questions of fact, his decision must be accepted unless he exceeds his authority by making a determination which is arbitrary or capricious or unsupported by evidence . . . or by failing to follow a procedure which satisfies elementary standards of fairness and reasonableness essential to the due conduct of the

Page 470 U. S. 773

proceeding which Congress has authorized. . . ."

Id. at 297 U. S. 172.

The civil service laws later were amended to incorporate a finality provision limiting judicial review of dependency and disability determinations. See ch. 84, § 12(d) (3), 62 Stat. 56. As originally enacted, the finality provision provided:

"Questions of dependency and disability arising under this section shall be determined by the Civil Service Commission and its decisions with respect to such matters shall be final and conclusive and shall not be subject to review. The Commission may order or direct at any time such medical or other examinations as it shall deem necessary to determine the facts relative to the nature and degree of disability. . . ."

Ibid. (emphasis added). This provision has undergone several revisions since 1948; [Footnote 3] as now codified at 5 U.S.C. § 8347(c), the relevant language provides that determinations "concerning these matters are final and conclusive and are not subject to review."

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA). [Footnote 4] This legislation comprehensively overhauled the civil service system. Several of the CSRA's provisions bear on this case. First, Congress abolished the Civil Service Commission and created the OPM, which is now responsible for administering the Retirement Act. CSRA §§ 201, 906, 92 Stat. 1118, 1224; see 5 U.S.C. § 8347(a). Second, Congress created the MSPB, and directed that one of the Board's duties would be to

Page 470 U. S. 774

review OPM's decisions in Retirement Act cases "under procedures prescribed by the Board." CSRA § 906, 92 Stat. 1225; see 5 U.S.C. § 8347(d)(1). Third, Congress created a new framework for evaluating adverse personnel actions against "employees" and "applicants for employment:" it established exacting standards for review of such actions by the MSPB, provided that "employees" and "applicants for employment" could obtain judicial review of MSPB decisions, and specified the standards for judicial review of such actions. CSRA § 205, 92 Stat. 1138, 5 U.S.C. §§ 7701, 7703 (1976 ed., Supp. V). [Footnote 5] Finally, Congress provided generally that jurisdiction over "a final order or final decision of the Board" would be in the Court of Claims, pursuant to the Tucker Act, or in the regional courts of appeals, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2342. See CSRA § 205, 92 Stat. 1143, 5 U.S.C. § 7703(b)(1) (1976 ed., Supp. V).

Public Law 96-500 ("the 1980 amendment"). Congress revisited the finality language of 5 U.S.C. § 8347 in 1980, and enacted legislation providing that one subclass of Retirement Act applicants would enjoy the enhanced administrative and judicial review provisions of the recently enacted CSRA:

"In the case of any individual found by [OPM] to be disabled in whole or in part on the basis of the individual's mental condition, and that finding was made pursuant to an application by an agency for purposes of disability retirement under section 8337(a) of this title, the [MSPB review] procedures under section 7701 of this title shall

Page 470 U. S. 775

apply and the decision of the Board shall be subject to judicial review under section 7703 of this title."

Pub. L. 96-500, 94 Stat. 2696, as codified in 5 U.S.C. § 8347(d)(2).

The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982 (FCIA) [Footnote 6] In the FCIA, Congress combined the appellate portions of the Court of Claims' Tucker Act jurisdiction with certain elements of the regional courts of appeals' jurisdiction, and vested jurisdiction over these matters in a new United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. FCIA § 127, 96 Stat. 37, 28 U.S.C. § 1295. Whereas the Court of Claims and the regional courts of appeals formerly shared jurisdiction over appeals from the MSPB, the Federal Circuit now has exclusive jurisdiction "of an appeal from a final order or final decision" of the Board pursuant to, inter alia, 5 U.S.C. § 7703(b)(1). 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(9); see FCIA § 155, 96 Stat. 45.


Until his retirement, the petitioner Wayne Lindahl served as a civilian security guard at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Cal. Lindahl suffers from acute and chronic bronchitis, allegedly aggravated in part by his exposure over the years to chemical irritants at Mare Island. In September, 1979, the Department of the Navy informed Lindahl that he would be retired

"because your physical condition has disabled you to such an extent that you are unable to perform the full range of duties required of your position as a Police Officer."

App. 10. Lindahl agreed with the Navy's assessment, and chose not to contest his separation.

Both before and after his retirement, Lindahl took steps to apply for a disability retirement annuity. [Footnote 7] OPM denied

Page 470 U. S. 776

Lindahl's claim several months after he had been retired on the ground that the evidence

"fails to establish that you have a disability severe enough to prevent useful, efficient, and safe performance of the essential duties of the position from which you are seeking retirement."

Id. at 21. 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 by a preponderance of the evidence that he was disabled within the meaning of the Retirement Act. App. 40. [Footnote 8]

Lindahl then filed a complaint in the Court of Claims, invoking that court's jurisdiction under 5 U.S.C. § 7703 and the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1491. App. 42-44. He charged that the MSPB had violated the CSRA and MSPB regulations by placing the burden of proving disability on him, rather than requiring the agency to disprove disability.

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