Class-Of-One Equal Protection Claim Not Actionable Against Public Employer

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Class-Of-One Equal Protection Claim Not Actionable Against Public Employer: Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 128 S.Ct. 2146 (2008)

In a recent 6-3 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court refused to recognize the validity of a so-called “class-of-one” equal protection claim in a public employment setting. A class-of-one equal protection claim arises where an employee claims she was treated differently from other similarly situated employees,  withoutbasing the alleged different treatment on the employee’s membership in a protected class. 

Deborah Engquist was hired as an international food standard specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. She encountered multiple problems with a fellow employee whom she complained made false statements about her and made her life difficult. An assistant director at the Department of Agriculture advised a client that he found it difficult to “control” Engquist and that she “would be gotten rid of.” When a managerial position became available within the Department, Engquist applied for it. Although Engquist had more experience, the position was given instead to the co-worker who allegedly made false statements about Engquist. Later that year, Engquist was informed that, due to reorganization, her position would be eliminated. Engquist could either move to another position at her level or accept a demotion. Because Engquist was found unqualified for the one position available at her level, and refused to be demoted, she was laid off. 

Engquist filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon asserting, among other claims, that the Department violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection. The  Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture decision is significant for its discussion of Engquist’s efforts to pursue a class-of-one equal protection claim. More specifically, Engquist claimed she was terminated not because she belonged to a protected class, but for “arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons.” The District Court allowed the class-of-one equal protection claim to proceed, and a jury found in plaintiff’s favor. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a class-of-one equal protection claim in the context of public employment interfered with the state’s employment practices and distorted the notion of at-will employment in the public sector.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit decision, holding that a class-of-one equal protection claim is not permitted in the public employment sector. While the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals from the conduct of government and public officials, the Court noted that a distinction exists between government serving in its legislative capacity, and government operating as an employer managing its internal operations. The Court posited that the “government as employer indeed has far broader powers than does the government as sovereign.” At the heart of the Engquistdecision is the notion that the government’s need to operate in an effective and efficient manner must be balanced against the rights of the individual. Allowing class-of-one equal protection claims would effectively subject government employers to judicial review on numerous routine employment decisions, ultimately making virtually every employment decision a potential constitutional question and “constitutionaliz[ing] the employee grievance.” Thus, Engquist’s class-of-one equal protection claim was rejected.