in an unanimous opinion authored by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court this week ruled in favor of an employee in a discrimination case under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, or USERRA.
The case turned on a legal theory that employment lawyers have come to call "cat's paw." Under the "cat's paw" theory, an employer can be held liable for discrimination when a final decision-maker is influenced to take an adverse action against another worker by a lower-level employee with discriminatory motives.
In the case, the Plaintiff, Vincent Staub, an Army reservist and a civilian technician at an Illinois hospital, sued after he was fired by the hospital, saying his military status was a motivating factor for his firing. At trial, Staub put on evidence that two of his supervisors wanted him fired because his military duties had caused him to be absent from work one weekend a month and a few weeks per year.
But it was not clear that the human resources officer - who was the person who actually fired Staub - had any negative feelings about Staub due to his military status. In fact, there was no evidence that HR officer even knew that Staub's supervisors felt that way. The Seventh Circuit ruled that without a showing that the final decision-maker had unlawful motive, the plaintiff could not win.
The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, holding that the employer does not get an automatic win in such circumstances. Instead, the Court reasoned that since corporations work through a “multitude of agents,” one of the agents could have tilted the decision in a discriminatory way. Here's the money quote:
“We therefore hold that if a 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. “
The decision was not a terribly surprising one and the opinion is straight forward and appears to give the guidance that practitioners throughout the country have been waiting for on this issue for quite some time. Defense lawyers will likely lament that this decision will make it much more likely that such cases will get in front of a jury. How terrible!
The truth of the matter is, however, that this case goes a long way to helping combat the common practice of employers attempting to shield a discriminatory decision behind the smokescreen of a so-called "independent" internal investigation. Corporate internal investigations are often nothing more than an opportunity for the company's HR department to collect evidence against the employee they should be protecting and to provide cover for the discriminating supervisor.
Following this decision, the employee may at least get the opportunity in some cases to lay out all the facts to a jury and get a fair hearing. I, for one, think that can only be considered to be a good thing.
Here are some relevant links to the opinion and related materials: