Supreme Court Ruling Increases Protection From Employment Discrimination

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employment discriminationLast week, the Supreme Court decided a closely watched employment discrimination case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital. The Court determined that an employer may be liable for employment discrimination even where the decision maker who takes an adverse employment action had no discriminatory intent, if that individual was functioning as the "cat's paw" for a supervisor who did have such discriminatory intent.

Staub was a member of the Army Reserves and, as a member, was required to attend occasional weekend and two-week training sessions throughout the year. At trial, Staub presented evidence that his immediate supervisor, Janice Mulally resented the fact that he was associated with the military as a Reservist, made numerous anti-Reserves comments and purposely scheduled him to work on weekends when he had training.

Staub presented additional evidence that Mulally's supervisor, Michael Korenchuk, shared her anti-military animus. In the weeks leading up to his termination, Staub was disciplined for allegedly insubordinate behavior as a result of multiple allegations made largely by Mulally. After again engaging in similar insubordinate behavior, Staub was terminated by Proctor Hospital's vice president of human resources. Staub argued that his termination was discriminatory because Mulally's unlawful animus was attributed to the vice president and singularly influenced her decision making.

Attorney Janie Schulman of law firm Morrison & Foerster notes, "employers must ensure policies and practices are in place to confirm fairness and validity of criticism or discipline taken or recommended by supervisors before relying on those actions or recommendations to effect an adverse employment action. Before you stick your hand in the fire, make sure the monkey -- or the supervisor -- who asks you to do so is not using you as a cat's paw. If you are not careful, you will get burned."

According to Rania Sedhom, attorney and principal of the Tax and Legal Group of the firm Buck Consultants, "discrimination shouldn't be tolerated, and termination based on discrimination should never happen. Supervisors need better training on how to communicate with employees about performance issues, and they need to learn how to take fact-based notes on work performance to prevent discriminatory actions." She also notes that this new ruling shouldn't protect employees with true performance issues.

Sedhom suggests that if an employee believes they are being treated unfairly, they should look at their job description and look at how the obstacles in their performance (whether it is needing time off, coming in late, or something else) affect job performance and business operations. If an employee needs a change to their schedule or a special accommodation, they should go to their employer with a recommended solution that works for both the individual and the employer.

The new ruling won't necessarily make it more difficult for terminations to occur; but it is certainly a wake up call to employers that tolerance, awareness, proper documentation, and consistent communication of job expectations need to be rigorously monitored to ensure fairness in the workplace.


Next: Sue for Employment Discrimination? Not So Fast!


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