Venable’s Government Contracts Practice Group, led by James Boland, Melanie Totman, and Dismas Locaria, prevailed before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in a case of first impression involving complicated questions of jurisdiction and res judicata. Mr. Cunningham petitioned the Merit Systems Protection Board for enforcement of his contract settling an MSPB action, arguing that the agency breached the contract. The MSPB ruled in a “final order” that the agency breached the contract, but due to statutory limitations could only provide rescission and reinstatement as a remedy. Mr. Cunningham rejected those remedies and instead sued the United States in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for money damages.
In its decision last week, Cunningham v. United States, No. 2013-5055, (April 9, 2014), the Federal Circuit first held that the Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction under the Tucker Act over contracts settling MSPB appeals, even when the settlement agreement is accepted by the MSPB as a consent decree of the Board. The Federal Circuit also ruled that a prior action at the MSPB to enforce the settlement agreement cannot bar a subsequent claim for breach of contract damages through res judicata, even though both actions involve the same parties and transactional facts, because the MSPB lacks jurisdiction to award contract damages. The Circuit explained that “it is the remedies available to the plaintiff in a forum of limited jurisdiction, not the remedies sought by the plaintiff, that determine whether res judicata bars a subsequent claim in a different forum.”
The Federal Circuit’s ruling further clarifies the broad nature of Tucker Act jurisdiction over “any” express contract with the United States to include certain administrative settlement agreements. It is an extension of the Circuit’s decision in Holmes v. United States, 657 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2011), also argued by James Boland, which was another case of first impression expanding Tucker Act jurisdiction to include Title VII settlement agreements. These twin appellate decisions reinforce a plaintiff’s broad right under the Tucker Act to seek monetary damages from the United States when it breaches a settlement agreement.
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