Monday, June 9, 2008

"Class of one" claims not appropriate for public workers

In 2002, the Supreme Court held that you can sue the government under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution if it treats you differently than other people without any rational basis. The Supreme Court called those cases "class of one" cases because all it takes is one person to show that the government is treating people arbitrarily. That case was Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2002). The Court now holds that "class of one" cases are not appropriate for public employees who were treated arbitrarily at work.

The case is Enquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, decided on June 9. There are relatively few remedies available to public employees who are fired for no good reason, especially if they can't prove their terminations were motivated by race, gender, religion or certain forms of whistleblowing. So when the Supreme Court issued Olech in 2002, plaintiffs tried to show that their arbitrary treatment at work violated the Equal Protection Clause in that other employees were treated more favorably. Those cases are now behind us.

Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts notes that the government has more leeway than the private sector in managing its operations, and that public employees have fewer rights than everyone else. The Court cites cases holding, for example, that public employees have diminished rights under the Constitutional provisions governing search and seizure, due process and whistleblower rights. The Court summarizes the state of the law in this area:

Our precedent in the public-employee context therefore establishes two main principles: First, although government employees do not lose their constitutional rights when they accept their positions, those rights must be balanced against the realities of the employment context. Second, in striking the appropriate balance, we consider whether the asserted employee right implicates the basic concerns of the relevant constitutional provision, or whether the claimed right can more readily give way to the requirements of the government as employer.

O.K., you may say, the government has leeway to manage its operations. What about the "class of one" theory in Olech which says that the government cannot treat people arbitrarily? The answer is that this theory does not work in the employment context because management normally has discretion to treat workers differently; that's the reality of the workplace. Olech and other cases recognizing the "class of one" theory involved the government misapplying its written classifications and regulations, usually dealing with property and taxation. Recognizing that this decision represents a departure from the Supreme Court's usual rules for "class of one" cases, the Chief Justice writes:

What seems to have been significant in Olech and the cases on which it relied was the existence of a clear standard against which departures, even for a single plaintiff, could be readily assessed. There was no indication in Olech that the zoning board was exercising discretionary authority ...

In contrast to the set rules that government officials must follow in zoning, taxation and other areas, in the public employment context those rules usually don't exist. So, when the government decisionmaking is subjective and individualized, public officials can treat people differently in light of the discretion they normally enjoy in managing their operations. In this employment case, since public officials may treat their workers differently in light of those subjective assessments, the plaintiff here, a plaintiff who claims she was treated shabbily at work can't bring a "class of one" case under the Equal Protection Clause. Instead, the Court reasons, she can get relief through other means, presumably through the union or a formalized grievance process.


Anonymous said...

This is another really really bad ruling. This one I should explain.
It says that other methods of fixing the sitution exist yet that may not always be the case. It can be understood with out a lot of difficulty that there is a movement to destroy unions in the USA including those that represent government workers.
So as long as our courts are weakening the protection that goverment workers have from being unfairly kicked out of their job a coresponding weakening of the protections that judges have from being subject to cruel and unusual punishement shouls also occur.
Just Curt Thinking Out Loud

Anonymous said...

I mean of course kicked out without a good cause.