On June 29, the Supreme Court of the United States released its opinion in Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety, which held that state employers may be sued for monetary damages for alleged violations of employees’ rights under federal military leave laws, despite the states’ sovereign immunity. Therefore, state agencies should be well aware of their obligations to employees who leave to perform military service.
The Torres case arose from service in the Army Reserves by Le Roy Torres, whose full-time job was as a Texas state trooper. Torres was called to active duty in 2007 and deployed to Iraq. While serving overseas, he was exposed to burn pits and developed constrictive bronchitis.
Because Torres said that his constrictive bronchitis left him unable to work as a state trooper, he asked his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), to accommodate the condition he developed while on military duty by reemploying him in a different role. The DPS refused to do so.
Torres sued the DPS in state court, arguing that it violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) by failing to use reasonable efforts to accommodate his service-related disability or to find him an equivalent position or its “nearest approximation” when the disability prevented him from holding his prior position. The DPS moved to dismiss the case, claiming that the state’s sovereign immunity prevented Torres from suing it without its consent. The trial court denied the motion, but Texas’ intermediate appellate court reversed. When the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear Torres’ case, he took it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The question before the Court was whether the Constitution allows Congress to enforce USERRA’s reemployment protections by authorizing private litigation against nonconsenting state employers. USERRA authorizes private damages suits against state employers to ensure that veterans who previously held positions as government employees would not be denied their old jobs. Because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, however, states usually cannot be sued without their consent. The Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the states gave up their sovereignty to the federal government in the area of national defense, and therefore, USERRA authorizes lawsuits against nonconsenting states.
The Court examined the text of the Constitution, its history, and the Court’s own precedents on state sovereign immunity to determine that when the 50 states entered the Union, they agreed that their sovereignty would yield in certain areas as part of the Constitution’s structure. Specifically, when the states joined the Union, they renounced their right to interfere with the federal government’s power to build and maintain the armed forces. Because the states committed themselves not to thwart the exercise of the federal government’s power to raise and maintain the military, the consent of the states, including consent to suit, is never required for Congress to exercise that power. Therefore, the Court held, Torres can sue the DPS in state court without its consent.
The Torres decision makes it clear that state agencies whose employees have military service obligations must comply with USERRA or potentially face a civil lawsuit. The facts of the case, however, provide a reminder to all employers — not just state agencies — of an important provision of USERRA. If an employee incurs a service-connected disability, upon return to employment, the employer’s obligation goes beyond the normal disability accommodation requirements. If an employer cannot accommodate the employee’s return to the position he or she would have had but for military service, the employer must place the employee in a position of “equivalent seniority, status, and pay” if the employee can become qualified for the position. If the employee cannot become qualified for the equivalent position, the employer must place the employee in a position that “most nearly approximates” the equivalent position.