The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a US Army reservist injured in the Iraq war can sue Texas for workplace discrimination.
Justices voted 5-4 to reject Texas’ claim that states should be immune from lawsuits under a federal law that gives returning veterans the right to get their jobs back from employers of the state, as well as the legal grounds to sue if their right is violated.
“This case asks whether states can invoke sovereign immunity as a legal defense to block such lawsuits. In our view, they cannot,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “In entering the Union, the states implicitly agreed that their sovereignty would cede to the federal policy of building and maintaining a national military.”
Breyer was joined by his two fellow liberal justices, as well as conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Four Tory 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 for active duty and deployed to Iraq in 2007. Like thousands of other U.S. service members, Torres was exposed to toxic fumes from infamous “burning pits” that operated nearby. his military base, causing him lung damage.
After being honorably discharged, Torres sought re-employment with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Unable to perform his duties as a Texas state trooper due to a diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis, he applied for another job with the department—housing which was denied, 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, prohibits state employers from discriminating on the basis of military service.
Breyer, writing for the Majority, said Congress has broad constitutional power to “raise and sustain armies,” which it has long used to pass measures to encourage military service, such as protections from employment for deployed military personnel. Texas implicitly agreed to be bound by those rules as a condition of Union membership, he wrote.
“States ultimately ratified the Constitution knowing that their sovereignty would give way to national military policy,” Breyer wrote of a founding-era principle he said the Court reaffirmed throughout the ‘story.
Disagreeing, Thomas said the majority ignored key precedent and the law at issue likely infringes on states’ rights.
“Our sovereign states deserved better,” he concluded.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling clears the way for Torres to pursue his claim in Texas state court.