Supreme Court Issues Decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital Case

Supreme Court Issues Decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital Case

The Supreme Court ruled in Staub v. Proctor Hospital that an employer may be liable for the discriminatory animus of a supervisor who did not participate in an adverse employment decision if the supervisor's animus is a proximate cause of the adverse employment action.

Facts of the Case

Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital. He also was in the United States Army Reserve. His Reserve duties required him to attend drill and training sessions one weekend out of every month and for two weeks during the summer. From 1990 to 2000, these obligations posed no problem with his work. He did, however, have a noted history of disappearing for long periods and an inability to get along with several co-workers.

In 2000, Janice Mulally became Mr. Staub's supervisor. She made her displeasure with his Reserve status well known. She scheduled him for work on weekends, knowingly interfering with his Reserve duties. Ms. Mulally referred to Mr. Staub's military duties as "bull" and made it known she wanted to get rid of him as an employee.

In January 2004, Ms. Mulally gave Mr. Staub a written warning for allegedly failing to respond to a request by Ms. Mulally to lend a hand on some open projects when he had available time. The warning required Mr. Staub to thereafter report to Ms. Mulally or to Michael Korenchuk when he had no patients.

On April 20, 2004, Mr. Staub alleges that he left a voicemail message for the department head, Mr. Korenchuk, stating that he was going to get lunch. When Mr. Staub returned from lunch, Mr. Korenchuk demanded to know where he had been and escorted Mr. Staub to Linda Buck's office in human resources. He was terminated for his poor attitude, his history of disappearances, and his failure to follow the terms of the January warning.

Mr. Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA") which prohibits adverse employment action against a member of the armed forces if the employee's membership is a "motivating factor" in the employer's action. Mr. Staub argued that although Ms. Buck made the decision to terminate him, her decision was so heavily influenced by Ms. Mulally's and Mr. Korenchuk's anti-reservist animus that that animus should be imputed to Proctor Hospital. The jury agreed and found for Mr. Staub.

The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that Ms. Buck conducted her own investigation into the facts and is therefore not liable for the animus of the biased supervisors.

What the Court Said

The Court reversed the Seventh Circuit, holding that if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military 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.

The Court analyzed this issue through the lenses of tort and agency law. It first noted that all supervisors acting in the scope of employment are agents of the employer. Next, the Court characterized a USERRA violation as an intentional tort, and noted that principles of tort law apply, including specific intent and proximate causation. Thus, liability under USERRA requires that a biased agent intends, for discriminatory reasons, that adverse employment action occur and that any action taken to further that intent is a proximate cause of the adverse action.

The ultimate or actual decisionmaker is irrelevant under this analysis. Nor can an independent investigation or other action by a neutral decisionmaker prevent the animus of an agent from tainting the adverse employment decision. According to the Court, the employer will remain liable because one of its agents committed an action based on unlawful motives that caused an adverse employment action.

What Employers Should Do

This ruling makes it more important for employers to be aware of potential biases in supervisors throughout the chain of command. An employer can institute a formal complaint process that allows employees to notify their employer of discriminatory conduct by a supervisor.

Employers also should investigate contemplated adverse employment actions to look for objective evidence of other bases that support the decision or that corroborate a supervisor's report or recommendation. The investigation should include an opportunity for the employee to present her version of events. This will permit an employer to ascertain which facts are not in dispute.

For more information about this case and other employment and labor law disputes, please contact Manesh Rath at rath@khlaw.com or Mary Pivec at pivec@khlaw.com

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