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Supreme Court Rules that Employer Discriminated Against Reservist Employee

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that an employer is liable for discrimination against an employee who was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. The Court ruled that even though the person who fired the reservist had no discriminatory motives, she relied on information from those who did.

Vincent Staub worked as a technician for Proctor Hospital in 2004. He was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. His commitment to the Army required that Staub attend drills one weekend a month and training for two to three weeks a year.

However, Janice Mulally, Staub’s immediate supervisor, and Michael Korenchuk, Mulally’s supervisor, were antagonistic towards Staub’s obligations to the Reserves. Mulally gave Staub additional shifts without notice to make up for Staub’s time off for training. Mulally told Staub’s coworker that the military obligations put a strain on the department and asked another employee to help her “get rid of” Staub.

In January 2004, Mulally disciplined Staub for violating a hospital rule requiring him to stay in his work area whenever he was not working with a patient. However, Staub contented that there was no such rule at the hospital and that, even if there were, he did not violate it. As part of his disciplinary action, Staub was required to notify Mulally or Korenchuk when his cases were finished and he had no waiting patients. In April, Korenchuk notified Linda Buck, the hospital’s vice president of human resources, that Staub had violated the terms of his disciplinary action by failing to notify a supervisor before leaving his work area. (Staub claimed that he left a voice message for Korenchuk and did not break the rules.) Buck reviewed Staub’s personnel file and then fired him, based on a recommendation from Korenchuk.

Staub challenged his termination through the hospital’s grievance process. He claimed that Mulally fabricated the original disciplinary action and the violation of that action because she was hostile towards his military obligations. Buck did not consult Mulally about the allegation. Instead, she upheld Staub’s termination.

Staub then sued Proctor under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). The law prohibits an employer to “deny employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment” because of a person’s obligation to perform military service. Staub argued that while Buck did not have any animosity towards him, she relied on tainted information from Mulally and Korenchuk in her decision to fire him. A jury found in favor of Staub and awarded him more than $57,000 in damages.

Proctor appealed the decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision, ruling that Buck based her decision on Staub’s employment file as well as recommendations from Mulally and Korenchuk. In the written opinion of the decision, the appeals court noted that “it is enough that the decisionmaker is not wholly dependent on a single source of information and conducts her own investigation in the facts relevant to the decision.”

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision ruling that the intent of Mulally and Korenchuck cannot be separated from Buck’s decision. The Court noted that supporting Proctor would mean that reviewing an employee file means that “the employer will be effectively shielded from discriminatory acts and recommendations of supervisors that were designed and intended to produce the adverse action.”

The Court also ruled that an independent investigation does not necessarily protect a company. “The employer is at fault because of one its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision,” noted the Court.

However, the original jury verdict was not reinstated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an appellate court must look at the facts of the case again to determine whether a new jury trial is warranted.

Staub v Proctor SCOTUS.pdf

♦ Photo byken mccown/Flickr