March 01, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Staub v. Proctor Hospital

On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400, holding that an employer is liable to an employee under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) if a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus whereby the supervisor intends to cause an adverse employment action against the employee, and if that act proximately causes the ultimate employment action. 

Vincent Staub was employed as an angiography technician by Proctor Hospital.  During this employment, he was a member of the United States Army Reserve, which involved drilling one weekend a month and full time two to three weeks a year.  Staub's immediate supervisors were hostile to Staub's military obligations and (according to Staub) fabricated a work rule violation to justify a "corrective action" requiring Staub to report to the supervisors whenever he had completed his work.  Four months later, one of the supervisors informed the hospital's vice president of human resources, Linda Buck, that Staub had violated the "corrective action."  Relying on this accusation and Staub's personnel file, Buck fired Staub.  Staub did not claim that Buck herself harbored any animus toward Staub's military service, but that instead she relied on Staub's supervisors, who did bear such animus. 

Staub sued the hospital under USERRA, which provides that "[a] person who is a member ... of or has an obligation to perform service in a uniformed service shall not be denied initial employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership,... or obligation." 38 U.S.C. §4311(a).  The statute also provides that "[a]n employer shall be considered to have engaged in actions prohibited ... under subsection (a), if the person's membership ... is a motivating factor in the employer's action, unless the employer can prove that the action would have been taken in the absence of such membership." §4311(c).  A jury found in Staub's favor and awarded him damages.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the hospital was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, because the only claimed animus was attributable to supervisors, who did not make the ultimate employment decision and did not exercise such singular influence over the decisionmaker that the decision to terminate was the product of blind reliance. 

The Supreme Court reversed.  Although declining to "aggregate" the discriminatory animus of Staub's supervisors with the act of Buck, the Court held that "[a]nimus and responsibility for the adverse action can both be attributed to … Staub's supervisors … if the adverse action is the intended consequence of that agent's discriminatory conduct."  The Court noted that the ultimate decisionmaker's own exercise of judgment does not negate either the intention of the earlier discriminatory act by the supervisors or its causal link to the ultimate action in firing Staub.  The Court also declined to adopt a rule immunizing an employer from liability merely because the employer conducts an independent investigation before taking the adverse employment action. 

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.  Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Thomas joined.  Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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