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SCOTUS rules Iraq war vet can sue state for lost job over burn pit injuries

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/TNS)
June 30, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Wednesday that a U.S. Army Reservist who lost his job as a Texas State trooper due to a service-related injury can sue the state for wrongfully forcing him out of his job.

The Supreme Court ruling concerns Le Roy Torres, who had served as an Army Reservist and a Texas State trooper for more than 20 years. Torres had served in Iraq in 2007 and was exposed to a toxic military burn pit that left him with constrictive bronchitis that prevented him from feasibly continuing his work as a Texas State Trooper. Torres requested his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, to assign him to accommodate his medical condition by assigning him to a different role but the department refused.

Torres eventually sued the state of Texas in a state court, claiming the decision not to re-hire him in a new role violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). Texas tried to dismiss the lawsuit by invoking sovereign immunity, but a trial court denied the State’s motion. The state won a reversal on an appeal and the Texas Supreme Court denied a discretionary review on the matter.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority decision in Wednesday’s decision — one of his final cases before officially retiring. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh.

In the majority ruling, Breyer stated that the states consented to the federal government’s power to raise armies and thus could not cite sovereign immunity and opposition to a war as a justification for blocking a service member’s reemployment.

“An unbroken line of precedents supports the same conclusion: Congress may legislate at the expense of traditional state sovereignty to raise and support the Armed Forces,” Breyer wrote.

Breyer also wrote that if states were allowed to block the reemployment of returning service members, it could hurt the national defense.

“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. “If a State — or even 25 States — decided to protest a war by refusing to employ returning servicemembers, Congress, on Texas’ telling, would be powerless to authorize private reinstatement suits against those States. The potentially debilitating effect on national security would not matter.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the dissenting opinion of the court, which was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

In the dissenting opinion, Thomas wrote, “The ‘history, practice, precedent and the structure of the Constitution’ all demonstrate that states did not surrender their sovereign immunity in their own courts when Congress legislates pursuant to one of its war powers.”