On March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide whether an employer was liable for discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”) for firing a hospital employee that was also a member of the United States Army Reserve.  Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400, 2011 WL 691244 (2011).

Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital (the “Hospital”) until he was fired in 2004.  The Hospital fired Staub for leaving his desk without permission in violation of a disciplinary notice he previously received called a “Corrective Action.”  Staub sued the hospital claiming that he was discharged due to his military obligations in violation of the USERRA.

A trial was held and the jury found in favor of Staub.  The Hospital moved for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial.  The United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois denied the Hospital’s motion.  The Hospital appealed that decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit which reversed the decision of the District Court, granting the Hospital’s motion for judgment as a matter of law and dismissing Staub’s complaint.  The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Staub’s appeal to “consider the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.”  Id. at *2.

In January 2004, Staub was issued a disciplinary warning called a “Corrective Action” by his immediate supervisor, Janice Mulally, for allegedly leaving his work area without permission.  Staub disputed the “Corrective Action” on two grounds: the rule Mulally relied upon did not exist and, even if it did, Staub did not leave his work area.

In April 2004, Staub was, once again, accused of leaving his work area without permission.  Staub denied the allegation and claimed he left Mulally’s supervisor, Michael Korenchuk, a voice mail notification that he was leaving his work area.  Linda Buck, the Hospital’s vice president of human resources, relied on Korenchuk’s accusations and, after reviewing Staub’s personnel file, decided to fire Staub.  The official reason for Staub’s firing was that he ignored the directive of the January “Corrective Action.”  Staub challenged his firing through the Hospital’s grievance process claiming that Mulally fabricated the allegation underlying the “Corrective Action” out of hostility toward Staub’s military obligations.  Despite Staub’s claims, Buck refused to change her decision.

Staub thereafter sued the Hospital under the USERRA, which states:

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).

An 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.  38 U.S.C. §4311(c).

The Supreme Court determined from the evidentiary record that Mulally and Korenchuk were hostile to Staub’s military obligations.  The Court accepted as true Staub’s allegations that Mulally scheduled Staub for additional shifts without notice so that he could “pay back the department for everyone else having to bend over backwards to cover [his] schedule for the Reserves.”  Id. at *2.  Mulally also told one of Staub’s co-workers that his military duty “had been a strain on the department” and asked that co-worker to help Mulally “get rid of him [Staub].”  Id.  Korenchuk referred to Staub’s military obligations as “a bunch of smoking and joking and a waste of taxpayer’s money.”  Id.  Korenchuk was also aware that Mulally was “out to get” Staub.  Id.

The Supreme Court determined that it was necessary to construe the phrase, “motivating factor in the employer’s action.”  Id. at *4.  The problem arises when the company official making the adverse employment decision “has no discriminatory animus but is influenced by previous company action that is the product of a like animus in someone else.”  Id.  The Supreme Court held 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.”  Id. at *6.

Applying that analysis to the facts, the Supreme Court decided to reverse the Court of Appeals decision dismissing Staub’s complaint.  It found that both Mulally and Korenchuk were acting within the scope of their employment when they took the actions that caused Buck to fire Staub.  There was evidence that Mulally and Korenchuk were motivated by hostility toward Staub’s military obligations.  There was also evidence that the actions of Mulally and Korenchuk were “causal factors underlying Buck’s decision to fire Staub” as Buck clearly relied upon the allegation that Staub ignored the January “Corrective Action.”  Id.  Finally, there was evidence that both Mulally and Korenchuk intended to get Staub fired.  Id.  The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals so that court could determine whether a new trial was necessary.

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