UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT BROADENS EMPLOYER LIABILITY IN EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION CASES

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, a decision rendered on March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court concluded that an employer can be held liable for the discriminatory animus of an employee who simply influenced the employment decision, even if that employee did not make the ultimate employment decision. 

In this case, the fired employee sued Proctor Hospital for anti-military bias under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which prohibits employment discrimination based on military membership or obligation.  The employee showed evidence that two supervisors disliked his role in the U.S. Army Reserve, which occasionally took him away from work. 

The Supreme Court held the employer liable, even though the two supervisors did not make the ultimate decision to fire the employee.  In holding the company liable, the Court concluded that the employee’s termination was the intended consequence of the supervisors’ discriminatory conduct.  In other words, when the ultimate decision maker’s decision to terminate or otherwise take an “adverse employment action” against an employee is tainted by the influence of a biased lower-level employee who intended to cause harm to the affected employee, the employer may be held liable for that personnel decision. 

Even though this case involved USERRA, a relatively little-used statute, its implications are expected to reach other, more prevalent anti-discrimination statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

This case underscores the need for ultimate decision makers to investigate the underlying information and reason(s) given to him/her by lower level managers or supervisors in making personnel decisions, in order to ensure that that information and those reason(s) are legitimate, and not based on discrimination, retaliation or other unlawful motive(s).

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