A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling expands the rights of military and veteran employees who may have faced discrimination while employed by state governments. In Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety, 142 S. Ct. 735 (2021), the Supreme Court ruled that state employers can’t use sovereign immunity to avoid complying with a military anti-discrimination law.
“Sovereign immunity” protects government entities from lawsuits. It’s a complex legal concept based on the principle that the government cannot be sued without its own consent. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as when the government has waived its immunity or Congress passes a law that specifically allows lawsuits against the government.
In this instance, the Supreme Court ruled that sovereign immunity does not apply to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”). This means that employees of state governments can sue their current or former employers under USERRA if the employers discriminate against military or veteran employees.
This is a victory for military and veteran employees who have faced discrimination in the workplace and will help to ensure their rights are protected. It’s also a victory for whistleblowers who report military discrimination. USERRA’s retaliation provisions extend to all employees (military and non-military alike), which means that any employee who reports discrimination on behalf of their military/veteran co-workers is protected.
What is USERRA?
Enacted in 1994, USERRA is a federal law that protects the employment rights of individuals who serve (or served) in the military. The law prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of their military service, and it also provides for certain reemployment rights.
Employers are also required to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are absent or disabled due to their military service. Under USERRA, employers must also reinstate employees to their former position upon their return from service. The law also protects those who report or complain about an employer’s discrimination against its military employees, regardless of whether not the complainant is a member of the military.
What is Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety?
The Supreme Court’s opinion stems from the case of Le Roy Torres, a former Army reservist and Texas state trooper who was effectively forced to resign as a result of lung damage stemming from exposure to toxic fumes during the Iraq War. Specifically, Torres asked for reasonable accommodations so he could perform his work despite his lung damage, but his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, refused Torres’ request. Consequently, Torres was forced to resign.
Torres sued under USERRA for discrimination, but the Texas Department of Public Safety argued that it was immune from the lawsuit due to sovereign immunity.
The trial court ruled that sovereign immunity did not apply, but the Texas Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi reversed, granting the state government’s request to dismiss the case. The Texas Supreme Court then declined to review whether USERRA overrode Texas’ sovereign immunity. But the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case.
In their opinion, the Supreme Court justices explained that states “agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense.” This means states, including Texas, cannot claim immunity from compliance with laws made under the federal government’s broad grant of war powers.
“By ratifying the Constitution, states agreed they would yield sovereignty to a national power to raise and support armed forces.”
In other words, Congress has the Constitutional authority to protect military service members from reprisal by states when returning from active duty. And states have effectively waived their right to sovereign immunity from federal laws protecting and supporting the military.
The Court’s opinion further explained that “USERRA’s express provision superseding state laws was sufficiently clear to displace the state’s claim that it was immune based on Texas law.” So, not only was Texas’ sovereign immunity waived in this instance, it was clear that Congress intended USERRA to override contradictory state laws.
What does this mean for military and veteran employees?
For Torres, the Supreme Court’s decision means he will get a chance to argue his claim of military discrimination in Texas state court.
For other service members and veterans, it means that those facing military discrimination (and those who are retaliated against as a result of reporting discrimination) will have the same right of action against state employers that they do for claims against private employers. Ultimately, this ruling ensures that those who work for state agencies have a right to sue for military discrimination.
If you’re being discriminated against, you have rights.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling, state employees now have the right to sue their employer for military discrimination and retaliation for reporting military discrimination under USERRA.
If you are a current or former service member and believe you’re being discriminated against due to your military status or an injury stemming from your service, or if you’ve reported discrimination on behalf of your military colleagues, contact our office for a consultation. We’ll help you determine if you have a claim and ensure you have the best chances of success.