For the second time in this young year, the Supreme Court has given employees another avenue to sue you.
The court has ruled that a hospital in Peoria, IL, can be liable for the discriminatory motives of supervisors who influenced — but didn’t actually make — the decision to fire an employee.
Last January, the court decided that third parties could sue for retaliation after a Kentucky man was fired after his fiance filed a sex discrimination claim against their mutual employer. (To read our earlier story, go here.)
A quick look at the high court’s most recent ruling.
Vincent Staub was an medical imaging technician at Proctor Hospital. He was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, which required him to attend “drill” one weekend a month and to train full-time two or three weeks a year.
His two bosses weren’t happy about the time he was gone. One grumbled that other members of the department had to “bend over backwards to cover (Staub’s) schedule for the Reserves.” The other belittled Staub’s weekend duty, saying it was “a bunch of smoking and joking and a waste of taxpayer money.”
The supervisor devised a plan to get Staub fired: They came up with an arbitrary rule limiting Staub’s movement from his workstation, and then claimed he’d violated it.
Staub complained to HR that his supervisors were discriminating against him because of his military status — a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA).
But the HR manager didn’t investigate Staub’s complaint. Instead, she used Staub’s alleged violation of the workstation rule to justify his dismissal.
Jury decision overturned, then upheld
Staub sued for discrimination under USERRA. A jury found in his favor, and awarded him about $58,000 in damages.
A federal appeals court reversed, saying the two supervisors didn’t have sufficient power to influence the firing decision.
But the Supreme Court upheld the jury verdict, saying there was ample evidence that not only were the two supervisors biased against Staub’s military obligations, their actions “were causal factors underlying (the HR manager’s) decision to fire Staub.”
Here’s the kicker: The decisionmaker didn’t have to have any discriminatory motives, the judges ruled. All that mattered was that the people who influenced the decisionmaker did have such an agenda.
The case is Staub v. Proctor Hospital. For the Supreme Court’s full decision, go here.
Where does the decision leave employers? Here’s a rundown of what the law firm Fisher & Phillips had to say in a recent blog post:
The court’s decision adds another layer of potential liability for employers in USERRA claims and other types of discrimination claims.
The ruling makes it clear that if the biased motives of a subordinate supervisor influences the chain of events that lead to an adverse employment action, the employer may be liable for discrimination — even if the ultimate decisionmaker had no discriminatory intent.
Bottom line: Employers are going to have to take a harder look at employees’ overall record before considering adverse action. The final decisionmaker is going to have to be sure that any action taken is on account of bona fide violations of company rules and regs — and not the result of personal bias on the part of managers.