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Law School Case Brief

Staub v. Proctor Hosp. - 562 U.S. 411, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011)

Rule:

The requirement that the biased supervisor's action be a causal factor of the ultimate employment action incorporates the traditional tort-law concept of proximate cause. Thus, if the employer's investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor's original biased action (by the terms of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C.S. § 4301 et seq., it is the employer's burden to establish that), then the employer will not be liable. But the supervisor's biased report may remain a causal factor if the independent investigation takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was, apart from the supervisor's recommendation, entirely justified. The United States Supreme Court is aware of no principle in tort or agency law under which an employer's mere conduct of an independent investigation has a claim-preclusive effect. Nor does the Court think the independent investigation somehow relieves the employer of "fault." The employer is at fault where one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision. 

Facts:

Petitioner Vincent Staub was a member of the United States Army Reserve while employed as an angiography technician by respondent Proctor Hospital. According to Staub, both his immediate supervisor (Mulally) and Mulally's supervisor (Korenchuk) were hostile to his military obligations. Mulally gave Staub a disciplinary warning, which included a directive requiring Staub to report to her or Korenchuk when his cases were completed. After receiving a report from Korenchuk that Staub had violated the Corrective Action, Proctor's vice president of human resources (Buck) reviewed Staub's personnel file and decided to fire him.

Staub filed a grievance, claiming that Mulally had fabricated the allegation underlying the warning out of hostility toward his military obligations, but Buck adhered to her decision. Staub sued Proctor under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which forbids an employer to deny “employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment” based on a person's “membership” in or “obligation to perform service in a uniformed service,” 38 U.S.C. § 4311(a), and provides that liability is established “if the person's membership . . . is a motivating factor in the employer's action,” § 4311(c). He contended not that Buck was motivated by hostility to his military obligations, but that Mulally and Korenchuk were, and that their actions influenced Buck's decision. A jury found Proctor liable and awarded Staub damages, but the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that Proctor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the decisionmaker had relied on more than Mulally's and Korenchuk's advice in making her decision. Staub sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Was Staub’s discharge a violation of the USERRA?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court determined that Staub was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law regarding his "cat's paw" discrimination claim under the USERRA; however, the Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court and remanded the case for further proceedings because (1) both supervisors were acting within the scope of their employment when they took the actions that allegedly caused the vice president to fire Staub; (2) there was evidence that the supervisors' actions were motivated by hostility toward his military obligations; (3) there was evidence that the supervisors' actions were causal factors underlying the vice president's decision to fire him; and (4) there was evidence that both supervisors had the specific intent to cause him to be terminated.

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