Public employees must file USERRA claims in state court

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has limited the way state employees can sue the agencies where they work for violating their rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

State employees can’t go to federal court with their claims. Instead, they must sue in state court.

That means employees of any California state agency (state or local government, state colleges and universities, etc.) must sue for alleged USERRA violations in California state courts. The only exception is lawsuits brought by the U.S. Attorney General on behalf of service members; those cases can be filed in federal court.

The court also clarified that individual supervisors who work for state agencies can’t be personally sued even if they were directly involved in denying a subordinate’s USERRA rights.

Recent case: Robert Townsend worked for the University of Alaska and is a member of the Alaska Air National Guard. When he was fired from his job, he suspected he had been targeted because of his military status. He filed a USERRA lawsuit in federal court. In the same lawsuit, he also tried to sue his supervisors personally.

The district court dismissed the case, and Townsend appealed.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the lawsuit. It reasoned that when Congress amended USERRA in 1998, it explicitly said state employees can sue a state employer only in state court, and the only federal lawsuits over denied benefits allowed are those the U.S. Attorney General files on behalf of individual state employees.

The court also found the amended law didn’t permit state employees to sue their state supervisors personally. (Townsend v. University of Alaska, et al., No. 07-35993, 9th Cir., 2008)