upreme Court Deprives Public Employees of Constitutional Rights

The Supreme Court in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture rejected a class-of-one equal protection theory in the public employment context. The case involved a public employee’s claim that she had been treated arbitrarily compared to similarly situated employees, arguing that such treatment gives rise to a class-of-one equal protection claim.

In 1992, Anup Engquist began working as an international food standard specialist for the Export Service Center, a laboratory within the Oregon Department of Agriculture. During her employment, Engquist experienced difficulty working with a colleague, Joseph Hyatt, alleging that he had made false statements about her. Engquist reported Corristan’s conduct to her boss, who required that both employees attend diversity and anger management training. In 2001, John Szczepanski assumed supervisory status over Corristan, Engquist, and Hyatt. Thereafter, Szczepanski passed up Engquist in favor of Corristan for a position for which Engquist was more qualified. Enguist’s position was later eliminated.

A jury ruled in Engquist’s favor, which the Ninth Circuit reversed. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the Ninth Circuit. In doing so, Justice Roberts perceived practical problems with Engquist’s class-of-one equal protection theory:

We agree that, even if we accepted Engquist’s claim, it would be difficult for a plaintiff to show that an employment decision is arbitrary. But this submission is beside the point. The practical problem with allowing class-of one claims to go forward in this context is not that it will be too easy for plaintiffs to prevail, but that governmentswill be forced to defend a multitude of such claims in the first place, and courts will be obliged to sort through themin a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The dissent, led by Justice John Stevens, addressed these practical concerns:

Presumably the concern that actually motivates today’s decision is fear that governments will be forced to defendagainst a multitude of “class of one” claims unless theCourt wields its meat-axe forthwith. Experience demonstrates, however, that these claims are brought infrequently, that the vast majority of such claims are asserted in complaints advancing other claims as well, and that all but a handful are dismissed well in advance of trial. Experience also demonstrates that there are in fact rare cases in which a petty tyrant has misused governmental, power. Proof that such misuse was arbitrary because unsupported by any conceivable rational basis should suffice to establish a violation of the Equal Protection Clause without requiring its victim also to prove that the tyrant was motivated by a particular variety of class-based animus.

Overall, the Engquist decision deprives public employees of constitutional rights.

For more information, please visit the New York Times article entitled, Justices Reject ‘Class of One’ Argument.