Texas had claimed sovereign immunity when a former state trooper filed a lawsuit accusing the state of not giving him an accommodation when he returned from military service.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state of Texas can be sued under military anti-discrimination law, siding with a former state trooper who said Texas violated federal law when it did not give him a new job upon his return from military service.
In a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that states gave up their immunity under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which protects veterans from employee discrimination.
Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer cited Congress’ constitutional war powers and said Congress had the authority to sanction private damages suits against states.
“In joining together to form a Union, the States agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense,” Breyer wrote.
The Texas Department of Public Safety employed Le Roy Torres as a trooper in 1998, where he worked until he was called to active duty in 2007. While deployed in Iraq, he was exposed to toxic burn pits and returned home with constrictive bronchitis.
Torres was honorably discharged and sought reemployment with DPS in a different position. Torres said his lung condition did not allow him to work in his old position as a state trooper. The state declined to provide Torres an accommodation and instead offered him a temporary position as state trooper. Torres resigned.
Torres sued DPS in 2017, alleging that the agency’s failure to offer him a job that would accommodate his disability violated the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994. Texas tried to dismiss the suit by invoking sovereign immunity.
“Texas’ contrary view would permit States to thwart national military readiness. We need not stray from the statute at hand to see the danger of this approach,” Breyer wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett joined, saying there isn’t enough evidence to indicate that states implicitly consented to private damages actions filed in their own courts by ratifying the Constitution.
In an amicus brief in support of Torres, veterans groups — including the National Veteran Legal Service Program and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — wrote that affirming Congress’ authority to provide “vital” USERRA protections is critical for veterans working as public sector employees, “many of whom face discrimination in the workplace over service-related disabilities.”
“The Constitution and the debt this nation owes to its veterans requires reversal,” the groups wrote.
Photo: A Texas Department of Public Safety vehicle outside the Texas Capitol. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune