Engquist v. Oregon Dep't of Agric.

Decision Date09 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07–474.,07–474.
Citation2008 Daily Journal D.A.R. 8347,27 IER Cases 1121,553 U.S. 591,21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 302,170 L.Ed.2d 975,08 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6922,91 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 43213,76 USLW 4367,128 S.Ct. 2146
PartiesAnup ENGQUIST, Petitioner, v. OREGON DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Syllabus *

Petitioner Engquist, an Oregon public employee, filed suit against respondents—her agency, her supervisor, and a co-worker—asserting, inter alia, claims under the Equal Protection Clause: She alleged she had been discriminated against based on her race, sex, and national origin, and she also brought a so-called “class-of-one” claim, alleging that she was fired not because she was a member of an identified class (unlike her race, sex, and national origin claims), but simply for arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons. The jury rejected the class-membership equal protection claims, but found for Engquist on her class-of-one claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed in relevant part. Although recognizing that this Court had upheld a class-of-one equal protection challenge to state legislative and regulatory action in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 120 S.Ct. 1073, 145 L.Ed.2d 1060, the court below emphasized that this Court has routinely afforded government greater leeway when it acts as employer rather than regulator. The court concluded that extending the class-of-one theory to the public employment context would lead to undue judicial interference in state employment practices and invalidate public at-will employment.

Held: The class-of-one theory of equal protection does not apply in the public employment context. Pp. 2150 – 2157.

(a) There is a crucial difference between the government exercising “the power to regulate or license, as lawmaker,” and acting “as proprietor, to manage [its] internal operation.” Cafeteria & Restaurant Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 896, 81 S.Ct. 1743, 6 L.Ed.2d 1230. Thus, in the public employment context, the Court has recognized that government has significantly greater leeway in its dealings with citizen employees than in bringing its sovereign power to bear on citizens at large. See, e.g., O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709, 721–722, 107 S.Ct. 1492, 94 L.Ed.2d 714. The relevant precedent establishes two main principles: First, government employees do not lose their constitutional rights when they go to work, but those rights must be balanced against the realities of the employment context. See, e.g., id., at 721, 107 S.Ct. 1492. Second, in striking the appropriate balance, the Court considers whether the claimed employee right implicates the relevant constitutional provision's basic concerns, or whether the right can more readily give way to the requirements of the government as employer. See, e.g., Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708 . Pp. 2150 – 2153.

(b) The Court's equal protection jurisprudence has typically been concerned with governmental classifications that “affect some groups of citizens differently than others.” McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425, 81 S.Ct. 1101. Olech did recognize that a class-of-one equal protection claim can in some circumstances be sustained. Its recognition of that theory, however, was not so much a departure from the principle that the Equal Protection Clause is concerned with arbitrary government classification, as it was an application of that principle to the facts in that case: The government singled Olech out with regard to its regulation of property, and the cases upon which the Court relied concerned property assessment and taxation schemes that were applied in a singular way to particular citizens. What seems to have been significant in Olech and the cited cases was the existence of a clear standard against which departures, even for a single plaintiff, could be readily assessed. This differential treatment raised a concern of arbitrary classification, and therefore required that the State provide a rational basis for it. There are some forms of state action, however, which by their nature involve discretionary decisionmaking based on a vast array of subjective, individualized assessments. In such cases treating like individuals differently is an accepted consequence of the discretion granted to governmental officials. This principle applies most clearly in the employment context, where decisions are often subjective and individualized, resting on a wide array of factors that are difficult to articulate and quantify. Unlike the context of arm's-length regulation, such as in Olech, treating seemingly similarly situated individuals differently in the employment context is par for the course. It is no proper challenge to what in its nature is a subjective and individualized decision that it was subjective and individualized. That the Court has never found the Equal Protection Clause implicated in this area is not surprising, given the historical understanding of the at-will nature of government employment. See, e.g., Cafeteria & Restaurant Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 896, 81 S.Ct. 1743, 6 L.Ed.2d 1230. Recognition of a claim that the State treated an employee differently from others for a bad reason, or for no reason at all, is simply contrary to the at-will concept. The Constitution does not require repudiating that familiar doctrine. Finally, the Court is guided, as in the past, by the “common-sense realization that government offices could not function if every employment decision became a constitutional matter.” Connick, supra, at 143, 103 S.Ct. 1684. If class-of-one claims were recognized in the employment context, any personnel action in which a wronged employee can conjure up a claim of differential treatment would suddenly become the basis for a federal constitutional claim. The Equal Protection Clause does not require [t]his displacement of managerial discretion by judicial supervision.” Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 423, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 164 L.Ed.2d 689. Pp. 2152 – 2157.

478 F.3d 985, affirmed.

ROBERTS, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER and GINSBURG, JJ., joined.

Neal Katyal, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Janet A. Metcalf, Salem, OR, for respondents.

Lisa S. Blatt, Washington, D.C., for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondents.Virginia A. Seitz, Jeffrey T. Green, Quin M. Sorenson, Pankaj Venugopal, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, D.C., Craig A. Crispin, Crispin Employment Lawyers, Portland, OR, Neal Katyal, Counsel of Record, Justin Florence, Matthew Gerke, Stephen I. Vladeck, Washington, D.C., David H. Remes, Jeffrey C. Wu, Covington & Burling LLP, Washington, D.C., Sarah O'Rourke Schrup, Chicago, IL, for Petitioner.Hardy Myers, Attorney General of Oregon, Peter Shepherd, Deputy Attorney General, Counsel of Record, Mary H. Williams, Solicitor General, Janet A. Metcalf, Assistant Attorney General, Salem, Oregon, for Respondents.Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a public employee can state a claim under the Equal Protection Clause by alleging that she was arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees, with no assertion that the different treatment was based on the employee's membership in any particular class. We hold that such a “class-of-one” theory of equal protection has no place in the public employment context.

I

Anup Engquist, the petitioner in this case, was hired in 1992 by Norma Corristan to be an international food standard specialist for the Export Service Center (ESC), a laboratory within the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). During the course of her employment, Engquist experienced repeated problems with Joseph Hyatt, another ODA employee, complaining to Corristan that he had made false statements about her and otherwise made her life difficult. Corristan responded by directing Hyatt to attend diversity and anger management training.

In 2001, John Szczepanski, an assistant director of ODA, assumed responsibility over ESC, supervising Corristan, Hyatt, and Engquist. Szczepanski told a client that he could not “control” Engquist, and that Engquist and Corristan “would be gotten rid of.” When Engquist and Hyatt both applied for a vacant managerial post within ESC, Szczepanski chose Hyatt despite Engquist's greater experience in the relevant field. Later that year, during a round of across-the-board budget cuts in Oregon, Szczepanski eliminated Corristan's position. Finally, on January 31, 2002, Engquist was informed that her position was being eliminated because of reorganization. Engquist's collective-bargaining agreement gave her the opportunity either to “bump” to another position at her level, or to take a demotion. She was found unqualified for the only other position at her level and declined a demotion, and was therefore effectively laid off.

Engquist subsequently brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon against ODA, Szczepanski, and Hyatt, all respondents here, alleging violations of federal antidiscrimination statutes, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and state law. As to Engquist's equal protection claim, she alleged that the defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her race, sex, and national origin. She also brought what is known as a “class-of-one” equal protection claim, alleging that she was fired not because she was a member of an identified class (unlike her race, sex, and national origin claims), but simply for “arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons.” App. 10.

The District Court granted the respondents' motion for summary judgment as to some of Engquist's claims, but allowed others to go forward,...

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