• U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Class-of-One Theory of Equal Protection Does Not Apply to Public Employees
  • June 29, 2008 | Author: Naomi F. Katz
  • Law Firm: Holland & Knight LLP - Chicago Office
  • In a 6-3 decision issued on June 9, 2008, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the class-of-one theory of equal protection does not apply in the public employment context. The Supreme Court held that a public employee cannot state a claim under the Equal Protection Clause by alleging that she was arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees without asserting that the different treatment was based on her membership in any particular class.

    Class-of-One Equal Protection Claim Is Not Viable in the Public Employment Context

    In Engquist v. Oregon Dep’t of Agric., No. 07-474, the plaintiff filed race, sex and national origin claims following her layoff. She also brought a class-of-one equal protection claim, alleging that she was terminated not because she was a member of a protected class, but for “arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons.” The plaintiff argued that the Equal Protection Clause forbids public employers from irrationally treating one employee differently from others who are similarly situated, regardless of whether the different treatment is based on the employee’s membership in a particular class.

    All of the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed by the district court or rejected by the jury, with the exception of her claim under the Equal Protection Clause. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the class-of-one theory of equal protection is inapplicable to public employees.

    The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. Although existing precedent allows for a class-of-one claim under the Equal Protection Clause in other contexts, such as the regulation of property, the Court observed that there is a “crucial difference” between the government acting as a regulator and the government acting as a proprietor managing its internal operations. The Court determined that the government has “significantly greater leeway in its dealings with citizen employees” than when dealing with “citizens at large.”

    The class-of-one theory presupposes that similarly situated individuals should be treated alike, and that different treatment “must survive at least rationality review.” In contrast to this theory, the Supreme Court recognized that employment decisions are often subjective and individualized, and treating “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.” In addition, the Court concluded that recognizing a class-of-one theory of equal protection in the public employment context would be contrary to the concept of at-will employment. The Court also stated that a class-of-one theory would open the door to a multitude of claims and emphasized the “common-sense realization that government offices could not function if every employment decision became a constitutional matter.”

    What This Means for Public Employers

    Although the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s class-of-one theory, the Equal Protection Clause still applies to public employers. The Court reiterated that the Equal Protection Clause is implicated when a public employer makes class-based decisions, treating distinct groups of individuals categorically differently. Public employers should therefore continue to carefully review and evaluate their employment policies, and evenly apply those policies when making decisions that adversely affect employees.