Skip to Main Content
Thought Leadership

Court Limits Discrimination Claims for Public Employees



June 18, 2008
Legal Updates

Recently, the United States Supreme Court decided in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture that public employees cannot bring suits under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment on the ground that their employer discriminated against them by singling them out for wrongful or arbitrary treatment. Stated differently, public employee equal protection claims are now limited only to situations where a government employer discriminated against an employee due to the employee's membership in a broader class, e.g. discrimination based on race or age.

Engquist involved an employee of a state agency whose employer passed her over for a promotion and instead promoted an allegedly less-qualified colleague. Engquist's employer told Enquist that his decision to not promote her was due to internal restructuring. Yet, the employer previously told a third party that he was planning to fire Engquist because she was uncontrollable. After refusing a demotion and being resultantly laid off, Engquist filed suit under the Equal Protection Clause alleging that her employment was terminated for "arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons."

The Court concluded that even assuming Enquist's allegations were true, the Equal Protection Clause does not protect public employees against their employers' individualized employment decisions. The Court emphasized that it is necessary to give the government greater leeway when it is acting as an employer and making discretionary decisions while managing its internal operations. The Court reasoned that the Equal Protection Clause's standards are largely unworkable in the context of employment decisions because its protections are generally applied to arbitrary discrimination against groups, not individual employees. Thus, allowing Engquist's claim would frustrate the functioning of at-will employment.

How This Impacts You

Enquist effectively makes it more difficult for public employees to bring equal protection suits against their employers. As a result, public employers should consider the case's importance both in pending litigation of discrimination claims and in future decisions concerning at-will employees. Notably, however, the Engquist decision does not affect employee claims brought under Congressional or state legislation.

Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP regularly publishes updates on industry trends and new developments in the law for our clients and friends. Please contact us if you would like to receive updates and newsletters, or request a printed copy.

Husch Blackwell Sanders encourages you to reprint this material. Please include the statement, "Reprinted with permission from Husch Blackwell Sanders, copyright 2010," at the end of any reprints. Please also email [email protected] to tell us of your reprint.

This information is intended only to provide general information in summary form on legal and business topics of the day. The contents hereof do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Specific legal advice should be sought in particular matters.