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Supreme Court Curtails Rights of Public Employees

David G. Savage

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday limited the rights of public employees, ruling that a state worker who said she was fired by a supervisor who was out to "get rid of" her could not sue the government for denying her equal protection of the laws.

In a 6-3 ruling, the justices refused to open the courthouse door to what some have called discrimination lawsuits by a "class of one."

Typically, employees sue in federal court because they say they were subjected to illegal discrimination based on race, gender, religion or national origin. The court labeled such lawsuits "class-based" because the employees said they suffered discrimination as part of a group.

In recent years, however, some judges have allowed individual public employees to sue a state, city or school board claiming they were singled out for discrimination by a vindictive supervisor. Some of the employees were fired; others claimed they were denied promotions or raises.

The Constitution says the government may not "deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." Public employees can bring job bias lawsuits that claim constitutional violations. Lawyers say only a handful of public employees have won such claims, which have been filed with increasing frequency.

In Monday's opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the "class-of-one theory of equal protection" threatened to turn ordinary job grievances from millions of public employees into federal cases.

"We are guided, as in the past, by the 'common-sense realization that government offices could not function if every employment decision became a constitutional matter,' " Roberts said. Workplace supervisors need to make a "subjective, individualized decision" to promote or demote an employee, he said, and they should not be hauled into court for such decisions.

The ruling concerns only government actions against public employees; private-sector workers are protected by other employment and civil rights laws.

The case began as a dispute between two men and two women who worked in a laboratory at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. One man was ordered to undergo diversity and anger management training. When one of his friends became head of the laboratory, the two men allegedly vowed to get rid of Anup Engquist and another woman. The women's jobs were eliminated.

Engquist, a native of India, sued Oregon and her supervisor in federal court. She alleged she was wrongly fired because of her gender and national origin but also for "arbitrary, vindictive and malicious reasons."

The jury rejected her claim of discrimination based on her gender and national origin, but agreed her firing was arbitrary, vindictive and malicious. She was awarded $175,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the ruling in a 2-1 decision. The judges concluded the right to equal protection of the laws did not extend to job discrimination claims from a "class of one."

The Supreme Court agreed in Engquist vs. Oregon. "Public employees typically have a variety of protections from just the sort of personnel actions about which Engquist complains, but the Equal Protection Clause is not of them," Roberts said.

The decision is a victory for groups such as the National School Boards Assn., the League of California Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures, all of which had urged the court to reject such claims.

"This type of claim has not been that common. But if the decision had gone the other way, it would have added to every lawsuit involving a public employee," said Mark Meyerhoff, a Los Angeles lawyer whose firm, Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore, represented the League of California Cities and the California State Assn. of Counties.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented. They said such lawsuits might be rare but public employees should be protected "against unequal and irrational treatment at the hands of the state."

In other action Monday, the court agreed again to hear cigarette maker Philip Morris' appeal of a $79.5-million award of punitive damages to the widow of a smoker.

Five years ago, the justices set aside the award in a one-line order and said the amount should be reconsidered. After the Oregon Supreme Court upheld it, the justice overturned the award last year as a violation of due process.

But the Oregon court reinstated it again, and on Monday the high court agreed to hear Philip Morris' claim that the state court had ignored what the justices said. The case will be heard in the fall.

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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