The U.S. Supreme Court sided with public employers last week in a decision that will restrict workers from suing over alleged job discrimination based on arbitrary or vindictive reasons aimed just at them.
In a case being watched closely by school groups, the issue before the justices was whether a public employee may press a federal lawsuit under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause when an adverse job action is based on subjective reasons that don’t otherwise violate laws barring discrimination based on race, sex, or other protected classes. Such a suit is called a “class of one” claim.
“Ratifying a class-of-one theory of equal protection in the context of public employment would impermissibly constitutionalize the employee grievance,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in the opinion for a 6-3 majority in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture (Case No. 07-474).
The chief justice said that a food-standards specialist for the state of Oregon whose job was eliminated amid tensions with her boss had no recourse under the equal-protection clause.
The class-of-one theory of equal protection, which means that the government should treat like individuals alike in decisions about, say, zoning or licensing, “is simply a poor fit for the public employment context,” the chief justice said.
Treating employees differently, as long as it is not for illegal discriminatory reasons, is part of the broad discretion that comes with at-will employment, he said.
The chief justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
In a dissent joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority was using “a meat ax” to carve out an exception to public employees’ constitutional rights.
The court was adopting “an unnecessarily broad rule that tolerates arbitrary and irrational decisions in the employment context,” Justice Stevens said.
The case was being watched closely by school groups. The National Education Association had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the worker in the Oregon dispute, while the National School Boards Association had filed a brief on the side of the state.
Francisco M. Negrón Jr., the general counsel of the NSBA, said in a statement that the decision “will save public schools from unnecessary suits.”
Michael D. Simpson, the general counsel of the NEA, said in an interview that teachers protected by tenure or collective-bargaining agreements wouldn’t be harmed by the ruling, but that many paraprofessionals and probationary employees don’t have such protections.
“It’s that crowd who lost out in this decision,” Mr. Simpson said. “School employees are not infrequently fired because administrators just don’t like them.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Rules For Public Employers In Targeted-Bias Case