Supreme Court says wounded Iraq War vet can sue Texas for job discrimination
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a U.S. Army Reservist who was injured during the Iraq War can pursue a lawsuit against Texas for alleged job discrimination.
The justices voted 5-4 to reject Texas’s claim that states should be immune from lawsuits brought under a federal statute that gives returning veterans the right to reclaim their jobs with state employers, as well as the legal grounds to sue if their right is violated.
“This case asks whether States may invoke sovereign immunity as a legal defense to block such suits. In our view, they cannot,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “Upon entering the Union, the States implicitly agreed that their sovereignty would yield to federal policy to build and keep a national military.”
Breyer was joined by his two fellow liberal justices, as well as conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Four conservative justices dissented in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Reservist Le Roy Torres had been employed as a Texas state trooper when he was called up to active duty and deployed to Iraq in 2007. Like thousands of other U.S. service members, Torres was exposed to toxic fumes from infamous “burn pits” that operated near his military base, causing him lung damage.
After being honorably discharged, Torres sought to be reemployed by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Unable to perform his duties as a Texas state trooper due to a diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis, he requested a different job within the department — an accommodation that was refused, leading Torres to resign.
Torres sued his former employer in Texas state court in 2017, seeking more than $5 million under a federal law known as the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA, signed by former President Clinton in 1994, makes it illegal for state employers to discriminate on the basis of military service.
Breyer, writing for the majority, said Congress has broad constitutional authority to “raise and support armies,” which it has long used to pass measures to encourage military service, like job protections for servicemembers on deployment. Texas implicitly agreed to be bound by such rules as a condition of joining the Union, he wrote.
“The States ultimately ratified the Constitution knowing that their sovereignty would give way to national military policy,” Breyer wrote of a founding-era principle that he said the court has reaffirmed throughout history.
In dissent, Thomas said the majority overlooked key precedent and that the statute at issue likely encroaches on states’ rights.
“Our sovereign States deserved better,” he concluded.
Wednesday’s decision by the Supreme Court clears the way for Torres to pursue his claim in Texas state court.