The question the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety is whether a state may be sued in state court for allegedly violating the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA). Texas argued it was immune from such a lawsuit, and the Texas Court of Appeals agreed.
Leroy Torres was employed by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). After he finished a deployment in Iraq, which left him with a lung condition, he tried to get a different position with DPS. DPS only offered him his old job on a temporary basis. He sued DPS in state court alleging it violated USERRA by failing to offer him a job that would accommodate his service-related disability.
Per the doctrine of sovereign immunity, private parties can’t sue states in state court without their consent unless Congress has validly waived sovereign immunity. Congress must do so unequivocally, and relevant to this case, “pursuant to a constitutional provision granting Congress the power to abrogate.”
The Texas Court of Appeals held that Torres could not sue DPS in state court because Congress can’t validly abrogate a state’s sovereign immunity under its Article I War Powers. USERRA was “arguably” enacted pursuant to such authority.
In Alden v. Maine (1999), the Supreme Court held that “[t]he powers delegated to Congress under Article I of the United States Constitution do not include the power to subject nonconsenting States to private suits for damages in state courts.” In that case the Supreme Court was considering whether Congress could validly abrogated Maine’s sovereign immunity in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Supreme Court concluded it could not. After reviewing the “history, practice, precedent, and structure of the Constitution,” the Supreme Court concluded that the states’ “immunity from private suit in their own courts” is “beyond the congressional power to abrogate by Article I legislation.”
Before the Texas Court of Appeals Torres argued that Alden’s holding only applies to the “specific legislation considered in that case (the FLSA) and the specific Article I enumerated power under which that legislation was enacted (the interstate commerce clause).” “Torres contends that USERRA was enacted pursuant to Congress’s War Powers, and that Congress could validly abrogate state immunity in its exercise of those powers because there is ‘compelling evidence’ that the States ‘were required to surrender’ War Powers to Congress ‘pursuant to the constitutional design.’”
The Texas Court of Appeals refused to read Alden narrowly. According to the Texas Court of Appeals, “we observe that in analyzing whether Congress validly abrogated state immunity, the Alden majority opinion did not mention the subject matter of the legislation at issue, nor did it mention the specific Article I enumerated power pursuant to which that legislation was enacted. This strongly implies that the Alden holding was intended to apply to laws enacted pursuant to any of the powers of Congress enumerated in Article I—not just laws, such as FLSA, enacted under the interstate commerce clause.”