WASHINGTON — Ret. Capt. Le Roy Torres considered his longtime job as a Texas state trooper a dream come true. But after being deployed to Iraq with the Army reserves in 2007, he suffered lung and brain damage from exposure to toxic burn pits. When Torres returned, he said he could no longer work as a trooper and sued the Texas Department of Public Safety when it would not accommodate his injuries. The Supreme Court ruled Torres has the right to pursue his claim against the state.
“It's going to help others in other states, and I received a message from a fellow veteran from another state, and he goes, 'Man, I'm just just hoping and praying for your case, because this will give me hope.' And now he's going to have that hope today,” Torres told Spectrum News shortly after justices handed down the decision.
The case involved a clash between the sovereign immunity of states, which generally shields them from lawsuits seeking damages and the power of the federal government to wage war, as well as raise and support an army.
In its 5-4 decision, the high court rejected Texas’ claim of immunity.
In his majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote “Text, history, and precedent show that the States, in coming together to form a Union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the good of the common defense.”
Brian Lawler, lead counsel for Torres, argued the State of Texas violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, a federal statute that works to ensure service members regain their civilian jobs and protect them from employment discrimination on the basis of their service.
"There were certain rights and immunities that the states were giving up, one of them was to Congress and its war powers. The ability to raise and maintain an Army and the Navy and provide for the common defense is something that the states don't have control over, the federal government does. And that's what the Supreme Court confirmed today," Lawler said.
"The Supreme Court leveled the playing field for all 50 states and said it doesn't matter what state we're in now, every service member who feels aggrieved by his or her state agency employer can bring these lawsuits," Lawler went on to say.
In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote “when the States ratified the Constitution, they did not implicitly consent to private damages actions filed in their own courts.”
The Office of the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Department of Public Safety did not return requests for comment.
Torres’ successful challenge potentially could boost job protections for all returning service members. Ret. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, executive director of the Reserve Organization of America, said while he understands there are states rights, he believes there needs to be a balance.
"Nothing is perfect, but it absolutely does strengthen these protections. It just sends a message to the states," Phillips said. “It makes it more difficult for a state to behave in a manner that harms a member of the Guard and Reserve for serving their nation, and then coming back disabled, ill, somehow unable to do their job. Perhaps the state has to think twice about doing this sort of thing."
Renee Burbank is the director of litigation for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which wrote a brief to the court earlier this year in support of Torres. She agrees this case goes far beyond one veteran.
“Most states up until [Wednesday’s] ruling did not permit suits again them in these types of cases,” said Burbank. “Every year, over a thousand complaints are filed with the Department of Labor for violations of [this law]. And disability discrimination is the most common type of workplace discrimination.”
Burbank says this decision is a monumental one for both current and former members of the military.
“This is just a great victory for service members and for veterans,” said Burbank. “This ruling says they have a right to not be discriminated against, no matter who their employer is.”
The case now heads back to the trial court in Corpus Christi. Tore supporters are also using this moment to push for the final passage of a sweeping federal bill to expand health care benefits of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
In a statement, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said "Right now, technicalities are preventing the bill from becoming law. In the wake of today’s decision, I urge Congressional negotiators to put veterans first, put politics aside, and send the Honoring Our PACT Act to the President’s desk. America’s veterans put their lives on the line, and we have an obligation to stand up for them like they stood up for us.”