A unanimous Supreme Court held that an Army Reservist, who was fired from his civilian job, has a viable discrimination claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) based on evidence that two biased supervisors contributed to the termination decision, even though an unbiased manager ultimately made the decision. Staub v. Proctor Hospital, __U.S.__, No. 09- 400 (March 1, 2011). Applying traditional agency law principles, the Court held that an employer may be liable under USERRA if a biased supervisor’s discriminatory intent was a “proximate cause” of the plaintiff’s termination.
The case arose when Vincent Staub, an Army Reserve member, was fired from his job as a technician at a Chicago-area hospital. At trial, Staub presented evidence that his two immediate supervisors expressed anti-military bias and that they contributed to an unbiased human resources manager’s decision to terminate him. Staub argued that his employer could be held liable under USERRA, which provides for liability when a “person’s membership [in a uniformed service] is a motivating factor in the employer’s [adverse employment] action.” 38 U.S.C. § 4311(c) (emphasis added). The jury found that Staub’s military status was a “motivating factor” for his termination and awarded him damages.
The hospital appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the hospital was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Circuit Court considered Staub’s “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which holds an employer responsible for the animus of a supervisor who does not make an employment decision, but nonetheless influences the decisionmaker. The Seventh Circuit held that in order to pursue a cat’s paw case under USERRA, an employee must prove that the immediate supervisor had a “singular influence” on the unbiased decisionmaker. Although some evidence suggested that biased supervisors influenced the manager who terminated Staub, the Seventh Circuit concluded the employer was absolved of liability because Staub failed to establish that the decisionmaker was “wholly dependent” on the biased supervisors as a single source of information.
The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. Construing USERRA’s statutory language, the Court looked to background principles of tort and agency law and found that intentional torts generally require that an actor must intend the consequences of an act, not simply the act itself. At the same time, the Court observed that a supervisor is an agent of an employer, and it is “axiomatic” that the exercise of judgment by the decisionmaker does not prevent the earlier agent’s action from being a proximate cause of the harm. Thus, “[s]ince a supervisor is an agent of the employer, when he causes an adverse employment action the employer causes it; and when discrimination is a motivating factor in his doing so, it is a ‘motivating factor in the employer’s action,’ precisely as the text requires.”
The Court also noted that, because an employer’s authority is often allocated among multiple agents, finding no liability in Staub’s case could allow an employer to “shield” itself from liability for the discriminatory acts and recommendations of supervisors, even those acts “designed and intended” to produce the adverse action. The Court found this to be an “implausible” reading of the statutory text.
The Court found that Staub’s supervisors were acting within the scope of their employment when they took the actions that allegedly caused the human resources manager to fire him. In addition, evidence established that the supervisors were motivated by animus, that their actions were causal factors underlying the decision to fire Staub, and that they acted with specific intent to cause his termination. These factors, the Supreme Court held, warranted overturning the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in favor of the hospital.
In a concurring opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that rather than relying on tort and agency principles, he believed that based on USERRA’s text, an employer is not liable when the unbiased official who makes the termination decision conducts “a reasonable investigation” and so has not “actually delegated” decisionmaking responsibility; it is not “delegating” merely to rely on facts provided by a biased supervisor. That said, Justice Alito concluded there was enough evidence in Staub’s case to find actual delegation of decisionmaking authority had occurred. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.