Supreme Court Sides with Employees, Again

Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted an anti-employment discrimination statute in a pro-employee way. On Tuesday the Court did it again, in Staub v. Proctor.

Staub is a U.S. Army reservist who worked at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ilinois. His supervisor and his supervisor's supervisor were reportedly hostile towards his military service and the demands it placed on Staub's time. According to Staub, and the jury that agreed with him, his supervisors decided to get rid of him -- by manufacturing a rule and Staub's supposed violation of that rule to justify his firing.

Jury Verdict Vacated

Although his supervisors did not have the power to fire him, the person that did explicitly referred to Staub's alleged rule-breaking to justify his firing. As a result, the jury found that Proctor Hospital violated a 1994 statute, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

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But the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the jury's verdict for Staub. The higher court found that, as a matter of law, the supervisors didn't have enough influence over the decision to fire Staub for their anti-military bias to matter. But the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision, with an opinion by Justice Scalia and a concurring opinion by Justices Alito and Thomas. (The unanimous vote was 8-0 because Justice Kagan recused herself.)

The Court held the person doing the actual firing need not be anti-military. The employer, according to their ruling, was liable if an anti-military supervisor does something that is intended to cause a higher-up to fire a military employee (or take some other adverse employment action) -- and that the bias-driven action triggers the firing. So Proctor Hospital could be liable for the anti-military supervisors' efforts "to get rid of" Staub -- because the firing decision appeared to be based on those supervisors' reports.

'A' Motivating Factor vs. 'The' Motivating Factor

Although Justices Alito and Thomas agreed that Proctor Hospital could be liable to Staub, they wanted the Court to hold that the person doing the actual firing had to be motivated by anti-military bias. The reason they agreed Proctor Hospital could be liable is that the person who fired Staub failed to investigate his complaint -- that Staub's supervisors were motivated by anti-military bias. Since that person didn't investigate, she effectively delegated the decision to fire to the biased supervisors. As a result, Justices Alito and Thomas would immunize employers that investigated such complaints and decided they were unfounded.

But the Court's decision doesn't mean the case is over, or that Staub gets the $58,000 the jury awarded him. At the trial, the jury was told an anti-military bias had to be a motivating factor in the firing -- rather than, as the Court in effect held, the motivating factor. The Seventh Circuit must now decide if the jury instruction is simply a case of "harmless error" -- or if Proctor Hospital is entitled to a new trial.