In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that state agencies are not immune from claims brought under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) in the case Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety, United States Supreme Court, No. 20-603.
In 2007, Mr. Le Roy Torres, an Army reservist since 1989, was called to active duty. While serving abroad in Iraq, he was exposed to toxic burn pits, eventually contracting a chronic respiratory disease that made it difficult to breath.
After being honorably discharged, Mr. Torres returned to his home in Texas. Because of his health, Mr. Torres could not return to his prior life as an active-duty state trooper. With the support of his doctor, he approached his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS), to accommodate his condition by reassigning him to another role. TDPS refused to accommodate his request, and Mr. Torres filed an action in state court against TDPS claiming TDPS violated his rights under USERRA.
As a returning serviceman who was employed by an agency of the state, USERRA provided Mr. Torres with the right to reclaim his prior job and provided a private cause of action when TDPS refused to accommodate Mr. Torres’ service-related disability. Mr. Torres exercised his right by filing an action in state court alleging TDPS violated various USERRA provisions. TDPS moved to dismiss, arguing it was entitled to sovereign immunity as a governmental agency of the State of Texas, which was denied by the trial court and subsequently reversed on appeal. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court exercised jurisdiction to decide whether Mr. Torres’ claim could survive TDPS sovereign immunity defense.
In upholding Mr. Torres’ right to pursue a private cause of action, the Court reasoned that:
“[b]y ratifying the Constitution, the States agreed their sovereignty would yield to the national power to raise and support the Armed Forces.”
The Court further reasoned as a part of supporting the Armed Forces, Congress decided to enact USERRA, which specifically authorizes private suits against states that refuse to provide an eligible returning serviceperson with their old job.
The Torres case builds upon precedent set forth in PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey. In PennEast, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that PennEast Pipeline Company had the right to use the federal government’s delegated power of eminent domain to sue the State of New Jersey in a federal condemnation action after FERC granted PennEast the right to construct a 116-mile pipeline that crossed various properties owned by the State of New Jersey.