WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court yesterday made it more difficult for individual public employees to sue for workplace discrimination.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices ruled against a woman who said her job at the Oregon Department of Agriculture was eliminated because she complained about a colleague who harassed her.
Individual victims of discrimination in many instances can assert claims, but "we have often recognized that government has significantly greater leeway in its dealings with citizen employees," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
Individual public employees typically have a variety of protections from personnel actions, but invoking the equal protection clause of the Constitution is not one of them, Roberts said.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said there is no compelling reason to carve arbitrary public employment decisions out of a well-established category of equal protection violations.
Anup Engquist said that after she complained about a colleague who allegedly harassed her, the man and a superior eliminated her position. A jury subsequently ruled in Engquist's favor.
Nine federal appeals courts have ruled that public employee claims similar to Engquist's can go forward. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against Engquist. The appeals court said that her claim involved an area of law in which the rights of public employees should not be as expansive as those of ordinary citizens.
The case revolves around an 8-year-old Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that a person may assert an equal protection claim as a "class of one" rather than on the grounds of discrimination against an entire group.
In his majority opinion, Roberts drew a distinction between Engquist's case and that of the couple seeking water service.
"There is a crucial difference" between government acting as a regulator and government acting as manager of its internal operations, Roberts wrote.
The Bush administration weighed in against Engquist in the Supreme Court.
If Engquist were to prevail, the federal courts would have to referee run-of-the-mill decisions in the public workplace, said the Justice Department solicitor general's office. Allowing such claims would subject public employers to compensatory and punitive damage claims for petty grievances, the solicitor general's office argued.
The federal government has 2.7 million civilian employees.
The states argued that the courts must be deferential to employment decisions of co-equal branches of government. School boards say there are already a multitude of judicial remedies for workplace complaints.
Among Engquist's supporters in the case were the 10-million-member AFL-CIO, the 3-million-member National Education Association, and the 325,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police.