Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture

PETITIONER: Anup Engquist
RESPONDENT: Oregon Department of Agriculture et al.
LOCATION: U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay

DOCKET NO.: 07-474
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 553 US 591 (2008)
GRANTED: Jan 11, 2008
ARGUED: Apr 21, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 09, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Janet A. Metcalf - argued the cause for the respondent
Lisa Schiavo Blatt -
Neal Kumar Katyal - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Anup Engquist, a woman of Indian descent, brought this action against the Oregon Department of Agriculture alleging that a co-worker at the Department harassed her and eventually engineered her termination. Although Engquist asserted numerous claims, a jury in the federal district court only found in her favor on her equal protection, substantive due process, and intentional interference with employment claims.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck those jury verdicts. Although the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the Supreme Court had previously dealt with such "class of one" equal protection claims eight years ago in a case, Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, involving a village resident suing the village for unjustified zoning decisions, it refused to apply that short, two-page opinion to Engquist's claim. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the Olech opinion may only apply when the government is in the role of regulator and did not clarify whether it would also apply in an employment context such as this one. In seeking Court review, Engquist noted the pervasive splits in the circuits regarding the proper allocation of the Court's decision in Olech, while Oregon claimed that Olech should be construed narrowly so as to avoid a deluge of petty cases against the government. Oregon also pointed out that even if the case were to be heard, Oregon would have qualified immunity and Engquist would necessarily lose.

Question

Does the Court's ruling in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000), allow so-called "class of one" equal protection claims against government bodies in the context of employment discrimination?

Media for Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 2008 in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 09, 2008 in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning in case 04-474, Engquist versus Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Anup Engquist, the petitioner in this case, had been an employee in the Oregon Department of Agriculture, since 1992.

According to Engquist, one of her supervisors and one of her coworkers had been antagonistic toward her for several years and eventually got her fired. She brought suit in Federal District Court alleging among other things two sorts of violations of the Equal Protection Clause.

First, she argued that she had been discriminated against because of her race, sex and national origin.

In other words, because of her membership in particular classes.

Second, she brought what has been called a class of one, equal protection challenge alleging that she was fired not because she was a member of an identifiable class, like her race, sex, and national origin claim, but simply for arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons.

The District Court allowed both types of claims to proceed to trial.

The jury rejected Engquist's class based equal protection claims, but found for her on the class of one claim.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in relevant part.

The Court recognized that this Court had upheld a class of one equal protection challenge to state regulatory action in a case called Village of Willowbrook versus Olech.

But the Ninth Circuit also recognized that we have traditionally afforded the government greater leeway when it acts as employer, as it was in this case, than when it acts as regulator as it was doing in the Olech case.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that extending the class of one theory to public -- and through the public employment context would lead among other things to undo judicial interference in state employment practices.

We agree, the main concern of the Equal Protection Clause is government classification of its citizens into groups.

Thus, the Equal Protection Clause plainly protects public employees from adverse actions taken on the basis of the employees, membership in some identifiable class; the race, gender or national origin, and nothing in today's decision alters that.

But government employment decisions by their nature involve discretionary decision making based on a vast array of subjective individualized assessments.

In this context, it may often appear that similarly situated employees are treated differently. But it is not a proper challenge to what in its nature is a subjective individualized assessment that it is subjective and individualized.

What is more?

We have always been guided in these types of cases by, as we put it in another case, the “common sense realization that government could not function if every employment decision became a constitutional matter.”

Accepting Engquist's position would allow every grievance by a public employee to become a constitutional challenge.

We do not believe the Equal Protection Clause requires that result.

An employee claiming that she was treated differently because of her sex, race or national origin has a claim.

An employee who just claims she was treated differently does not.

For these, and other reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter and Ginsburg have joined.