Federal Workers Can't Use Constitution in Discrimination Allegations

June 10, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt civilian government workers a setback by ruling their workplace discrimination allegations generally do not represent valid constitutional claims.

The Associated Press reported the high court ruled 6-3 that while public employees typically have a variety of protections from personnel actions, invoking the equal protection clause of the Constitution is not one of them.

The case involved a woman who lost her job with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and who had invoked the equal protection clause in a federal lawsuit that alleged her dismissal was for “arbitrary, vindictive and malicious reasons.” The Indian-born 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. However, on appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said her claim involved an area of law where the rights of public employees should not be as expansive as those of ordinary citizens.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion the justices “have often recognized that government has significantly greater leeway in its dealings with citizen employees.”

Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court was using a meat axe in an area that called for a scalpel. There is no compelling reason to carve arbitrary public employment decisions out of a well-established category of equal protection violations, Stevens said in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.

The case is Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 07-474.