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Opinion Recap: Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture

Recent Stanford Law School graduate Andrew Dawson penned this entry on Monday’s decision in Engquist.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court on Monday held that a class-of-one theory of equal protection does not apply in the public employment context.

At issue in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture were a public employee’s allegations that she had been “arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees,” and that such treatment gave rise to a class-of-one equal protection claim. A jury awarded Engquist damages based on that claim, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding such a claim inappropriate in the public employment context. The Supreme Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit below, rejecting Engquist’s argument that the Court’s per curiam holding in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech (2000) should be extended to public employment cases. While agreeing that the protection of the Equal Protection Clause applies to the government when it acts as an employer, the Supreme Court declined to extend that protection to class-of-one claims.

Noting the Court’s previous recognition that the government’s powers are broader when it acts as an employer rather than a sovereign, the Court focused on the particular balance of interests at play in the employment context. In particular, the Court analogized to First Amendment cases concerning speech by public employees. Quoting Connick v. Myers, Chief Justice Roberts noted that “a federal court is not the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee’s behavior.”

Moving on to the specific Equal Protection claim at stake, the Court rejected Engquist’s argument that Olech opened the door to class-of-one claims in the public employment context. The Court construed Olech’s reach narrowly, noting that it was “not . . . a departure from the principle that the Equal Protection Clause is concerned with arbitrary government classification.” The Court further noted that in Olech there had been a clear standard against which allegedly discriminatory government action could be measured. The Court distinguished the facts of Engquist, describing it in contrast to Olech as a “form[] of state action . . . which by [its] nature involve[s] discretionary decisionmaking based on a vast array of subjective, individualized assessments.” In such a context, “allowing a challenge based on the arbitrary singling out of a particular person would undermine the very discretion that such state officials are entrusted to exercise.” The Court was careful to point out that class-based decisionmaking in public employment may still give rise to an Equal Protection claim.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, dissented. The dissenting justices disagreed with the majority’s pragmatic concerns, suggesting instead that the majority’s holding “creates a new substantive rule excepting state employees from the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection against unequal and irrational treatment at the hands of the State.”

The dissenting opinion presented a different view of Olech, suggesting its holding “was dictated solely by the absence of a rational basis for the discrimination.” Under such a reading, suggests the dissent, Engquist’s claim that her treatment was arbitrary and irrational is sufficient to state a claim. The dissent also rejected the majority’s concern about the inherently discretionary nature of employment decisions, noting that there is a distinction between the exercise of discretion and an arbitrary decision. While the Equal Protection Clause would not hinder a rational exercise of discretion, argued the dissent, it should prevent decisions unsupported by any rational basis.