The United States Supreme Court has unanimously (minus Justice Kagan) ruled that an employer can be held legally responsible for the discriminatory motives of supervisors who influenced — but did not actually make — the decision to fire an employee. Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400 (2011).
Vincent Staub was an angiography technologist 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. Staub’s supervisors resented the time he was absent work for Reserve purposes, so they implemented a rule limiting Staub’s movement from his work area, and then claimed he violated it.
Staub complained to HR that his supervisors were discriminating against him because of his military status, which would constitute a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA). The HR manager did not investigate Staub’s complaint and instead terminated him based on information provided by his supervisors (insubordination, shirking, and attitude problems).
Staub sued for discrimination under USERRA. A jury found in his favor, and awarded him about $58,000 in damages. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying the two supervisors had insufficient power to influence the firing decision.
The Supreme Court upheld the jury verdict, holding there was ample evidence that the two supervisors were biased against Staub’s military obligations, and, moreover, that their actions “were causal factors underlying (the HR manager’s) decision to fire Staub.” The Court explained, “if the supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA.” (Emphasis in original.)
The ruling makes it clear that if a supervisor with unbiased motives influences an adverse employment action, the employer may be liable for discrimination — even if the ultimate decision maker had no discriminatory intent. This theory is known as “Cat’s paw” liability.
In light of this decision, final decision makers must take care to ensure that employment decisions are based on legitimate business factors and not on any personal biases. While the employee in this case brought his claims under USERRA, the Court’s holding likely will apply to claims under other anti-discrimination laws as well. This case also highlights the importance of training supervisors on employers’ obligations and employees’ rights under USERRA and other anti-discrimination statutes, as well as how to effectively manage performance.