Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Supreme Court rulings are retroactive

Sometimes, the Supreme Court issues a ruling that kills your case midstream. That's because Supreme Court decisions have retroactive effect. There is no grandfathering. That's the lesson of Appel v. Spiridon, decided on July 2.

The plaintiff sued her employer under the Equal Protection Clause because she was required to submit to a psychological examination in order to maintain her teaching position at Western Connecticut State University. Her legal theory was "class of one." This means that, as a lone plaintiff, she can maintain that a government entity treated her arbitrarily and that she is the only member of the class who was treated this way. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, reasoning that she had a strong likelihood of success on the merits of the case and that she would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction. For a plaintiff, there can be nothing better than a preliminary injunction, as it means you have temporarily "won" the case and that the defendant has to leave you alone for the time being.

Here's the problem for plaintiff. A few months ago, the Supreme Court decided that the "class of one" theory cannot apply in the context of public employment because these decisions are discretionary with the employer and the courts cannot mediate every workplace dispute. That case was Engquist v. Or. Dep’t of Agric., 128 S. Ct. 2146 (2008). Appel's lawyer and the trial court did not have the benefit of Enquist when her case was pending. That doesn't matter. Enquist requires the Second Circuit to vacate the preliminary injunction. Appel loses.

What is more, recognizing that it had previously interpreted the Equal Protection Clause to govern workplace decisions, the Second Circuit expressly "overrule[s] any precedent of this Circuit to the extent that it conflicts with the holding of Enquist." Those cases are: Skehan v. Vill. of Mamaroneck, 465 F.3d 96 (2d Cir. 2006) and Neilson v. D’Angelis, 409 F.3d 100 (2d Cir 2005).

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