Engquist sued her former employer, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and two of her former supervisors, alleging violations of federal anti-discrimination law, constitutional law, and state tort law against her former employer. A jury found the individual defendants liable for constitutional violations of equal protection and substantive due process, and for intentional interference with contract. The jury concluded that Defendants were liable on the equal protection claim because Defendants “intentionally treat[ed] the plaintiff differently than others similarly situated with respect to the denial of her promotion, termination of her employment, or denial of bumping rights without any rational basis and solely for arbitrary, vindictive, or malicious reasons.” Defendants appealed, arguing that Engquist's constitutional claims are invalid as a matter of law, because the class-of-one theory is not applicable to the claims of public employees.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals partially vacated the jury verdict, holding that Engquist’s constitutional claims are invalid as a matter of law because the class-of-one theory of equal protection is not applicable to decisions made by public employers. The Equal Protection Clause ensures that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike; difficulties in applying equal protection analysis arise when the plaintiff forms a class of one--i.e., there are no similarly situated persons to whom he or she can be compared. The Supreme Court formally recognized class-of-one equal protection actions in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, recognizing claims against the regulatory action of the government when a “plaintiff alleges that she has been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.” The Ninth Circuit reasoned that there is a significant difference between allowing such claims against the government when it is acting as a regulator and the government when it is acting as an employer, a role in which the government traditionally has more latitude in its decision-making. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the class-of-one theory of equal protection is another constitutional area where the rights of public employees should not be as expansive as the rights of ordinary citizens.
The Ninth Circuit below vacated the jury’s verdict in favor of Petitioner Engquist and created a divisive split with the seven Circuits that apply the “rational basis” analysis to public employees who claim their termination was a result of unequal treatment, even if that treatment did not result from the employee’s membership in a suspect class. The question presented is:
Whether traditional equal protection “rational basis” analysis under Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 120 S. Ct. 1073, 145 L. Ed. 2d 1060 (2000) applies to public employers who intentionally treat similarly situated employees differently with no rational bases for arbitrary, vindictive or malicious reasons?