In a scenario that frequently occurs in workplaces across the country, Linda Buck, the vice president of human resources at Proctor Hospital, was asked to terminate Vincent Staub based on information contained in a report from his supervisors that accused him of violating the terms of a “corrective action” disciplinary warning. Relying on this accusation and her own review of Mr. Staub’s personnel file, Ms. Buck decided to terminate Mr. Staub’s employment. Mr. Staub protested to Ms. Buck that his supervisors were hostile to his military obligations as a member of the U.S. Army reserves, but rather than follow up on Mr. Staub’s concern with his supervisors, Ms. Buck simply conferred with another human resources staff member and adhered to her termination decision. Mr. Staub sued Proctor under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”) claiming that his discharge was motivated by hostility to his obligations as a military reservist. His contention was not that Ms. Buck had any such hostility but that his supervisors did, and that their actions influenced Ms. Buck’s ultimate employment decision. (This type of case has been referred to as a "Cat's Paw" case, based on an Aesop's fable involving a cat, a monkey, chestnuts and fire. Justice Scalia provides more information at footnote 1 of his majority opinion.)
A jury found that Mr. Staub’s “military status was a motivating factor in [Proctor’s] decision to discharge him,” and awarded $57,640 in damages. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that Proctor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Ms. Buck had relied on more than just the supervisors' advice in making her termination decision.
The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's decision, holding that an employer will be liable under USERRA when a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action. In other words, an employer cannot "launder" an adverse employment decision based on information supplied by a supervisor with discriminatory motivation by submitting the supervisor's input to an unbiased decision-maker. The Supreme Court held that the hospital was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was evidence that Mr. Staub's supervisors, motivated by their hostility towards Mr. Staub's military obligations, intended to and in fact were successful in convincing Ms. Buck that Mr. Staub had violated the terms of a prior disciplinary warning. As a result, the biased supervisors' actions were causal factors in the termination decision. The Supreme Court noted that the employer could not insulate itself from liability by relying on Ms. Buck's independent investigation because she ultimately relied on the discriminatory input from the supervisors in arriving at her termination decision. According to the Court, "The employer is at fault because one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision."
Although the Staub case arose under USERRA, employers can anticipate courts applying this analysis in cases arising under Title VII, the ADA and other federal employment laws that have similar standards of liability as the "motivating factor" standard under USERRA. Although employers cannot eliminate the risk of liability by having decisionmakers conduct independent investigations, such investigations by a disinterested decisionmaker can reduce the potential for liability whenever there is a suggestion that discriminatory motives may be playing a role in the effort to discipline or terminate an employee.