"Just One" Doesn’t Work When Public Employees Treated Unfairly

When I go to a restaurant by myself, one of my pet peeves is to be asked, “just one?” like it’s a sign of my own personal failure to be there without another guest. A public employee in Oregon can probably relate — she just had her own version of “just one” shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court. If you’ve been treated arbitrarily or irrationally, you better find someone else to join you at the table, says the Court.

Anup Engquist, a woman from India, sued her employer, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, after years of torment at the hands of a coworker, Joseph Hyatt, that ultimately resulted in her termination, allegedly for financial reasons. Over the years that he worked with Engquist, Hyatt refused to give her information she needed to do her job, made false, derogatory statements about her, and constantly monitored her, even when she went to the ladies room. (See Petitioner’s Brief at 3). Even after Hyatt was twice denied a managerial promotion, and transferred to another department in the same building, he continued to torment Engquist. Ultimately, he worked with another manager, John Szczepanski, to get Engquist laid off, ostensibly for financial reasons.

Engquist filed a lawsuit challenging her treatment, and in a trial on the merits of her case, introduced a mountain of evidence showing Hyatt’s hatred of Engquist and his constant efforts to undermine her, which the jury believed in awarding a verdict of $425,000 in damages in her favor, not because she was fired due to her race, sex, or national origin, but because the jury believed she had been treated arbitrarily and unfairly. However, that verdict was appealed, and a 2-1 panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict in her favor. (See Ninth Circuit opinion.) Engquist then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled against Engquist 6-3, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts. (See Supreme Court opinion.) The primary issue before the Court was whether Engquist could bring an Equal Protection argument demonstrating that she had been treated arbitrarily and irrationally, if she was a “class of one,” — the only person making this argument. Generally, equal protection cases are brought by individuals claiming unfair treatment as a result of their membership in a particular class: race, sex, national origin, etc.) However, although Engquist was an Indian woman, the portion of the case before the Supreme Court was whether she could be fired for “arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons.” This was considered a “class of one” equal protection claim.

A “class of one” claim appeared to be permitted by an earlier Supreme Court case which involved housing discrimination, and a few lower courts had applied it in other public employee cases. But the Supreme Court had never directly applied the theory in cases involving public employees before, and ruled that it was not appropriate to do so in this setting either. Essentially, the Court ruled that the government as a public employer has more leeway to act arbitrarily than it does when using its power against ordinary citizens, and that allowing the “class of one” claims to move forward would permit too much litigation against governmental employers.

Chief Justice Roberts, in writing for the Court, states:

Thus, the class-of-one theory of equal protection—which presupposes that like
individuals should be treated alike, and that to treat them differently is to
classify them in a way that must survive at least rationality review—is simply a
poor fit in the public employment context. To treat employees differently is not
to classify them in a way that raises equal protection concerns. Rather, it is
simply to exercise the broad discretion that typically characterizes the
employer-employee relationship.

(Supreme Court opinion at 12.)

According to this decision, if a public employee is treated differently than other employees, he or she must show not just that they were treated differently, but that the reason for this treatment is due to their membership in a protected group.

Indeed, our cases make clear that the Equal Protection Clause is implicated when
the government makes class-based decisions in the employment context, treating
distinct groups of individuals categorically differently.

(Supreme Court opinion at 12-13.)

So public employees who have been treated arbitrarily and irrationally by their employers have to bring someone to court with them, in essence demonstrating that there are other members of their protected class who would have been treated the same way, while others not in their protected class were treated more advantageously.

If the answer is “just one,” then the federal courts will “just say no,” which denied Engquist her place at the table, and will do the same for other government employees who can’t show they are part of a class of people treated differently than others.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.