Supreme Court victory for former Texas state trooper

WASHINGTON – Ret. Captain Le Roy Torres considered his longtime job as a Texas State Trooper a dream come true. But after being deployed to Iraq with army reserves in 2007, he suffered lung and brain damage from exposure to toxic combustion sources. When Torres returned, he said he could no longer work as a soldier and sued the Texas Department of Public Safety when he could not account for his injuries. The Supreme Court ruled that Torres had the right to pursue his claim against the state.

“This is going to help other people in other states, and I got a message from another veteran in another state, and he said, ‘Man, I’m just hoping and praying for your case. , because it will give me hope. And now he’s going to have that hope today,” Torres told Spectrum News shortly after the judges released the decision.

The case involved a clash between the sovereign immunity of states, which generally protects them from lawsuits for damages, and the power of the federal government to wage war, as well as to raise and support an army.

In its 5-4 decision, the High Court denied Texas’ immunity request.

In his majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: “The text, history and precedent show that the States, in coming together to form a Union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the sake of common defense “.

Brian Lawler, lead attorney for Torres, argued that the state of Texas violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, a federal law that aims to ensure service members return to civilian jobs. and protect them from employment discrimination on the basis of their service.

“There were certain rights and immunities which the States gave up, one of them concerned Congress and its powers of war. The ability to raise and maintain an army and navy and to provide for the common defense is something something that the states don’t have control, the federal government does. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld today,” Lawler said.

“The Supreme Court leveled the playing field for all 50 states and said that no matter what state we are in now, every service member who feels aggrieved by their state agency employer can sue these lawsuits,” Lawler continued. say.

In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote “when the States ratified the Constitution, they did not implicitly consent to private damages actions brought in their own courts”.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety did not return requests for comment.

Torres’ successful challenge could potentially bolster job protections for all returning service members. Back. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, executive director of the Reserve Organization of America, said while he understands there are rights for states, he thinks there has to be a balance.

“Nothing is perfect, but it absolutely strengthens those protections. It just sends a message to states,” Phillips said. “It makes it harder for a state to behave in a way that harms a member of the Guard and Reserve for serving their nation, and then coming back disabled, sick, unable to do their job. the state needs to think twice about doing this stuff.”

Renee Burbank is the litigation director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which wrote a court brief earlier this year in support of Torres. She agrees that this case goes way beyond a veteran.

“Most states up to [Wednesday’s] decision did not authorize prosecution against them in these types of cases,” Burbank said. “Each year, more than a thousand complaints are filed with the Ministry of Labor for violation of [this law]. And disability-related discrimination is the most common type of discrimination in the workplace.

Burbank says the move is monumental for current and former members of the military.

“This is just a big win for the military and for veterans,” Burbank said. “This decision says they have the right not to be discriminated against, regardless of their employer.”

The case now returns to the Corpus Christi Magistrates Court. Tore supporters are also using this moment to push for final passage of a sweeping federal bill to expand health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic combustion fireplaces.

In a statement, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said, “At this time, technicalities prevent 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. American veterans put their lives on the line, and we have an obligation to defend them as they defended us.

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