In Angiuoni v. Town of Billerica, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Court) denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment on a former disabled veteran employee's claim that the Town of Billerica and its Chief of Police violated the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, 38 U.S.C. § 4311 (USERRA), when it terminated his employment. As more military personnel return home from military service abroad, employers and their managers must be aware of the rights and protections afforded to them under USERRA and other statutes.
In 2008, the U.S. Army Reserve honorably discharged Joseph Angiuoni due to a service-related back injury. In April 2009, Angiuoni became a probationary officer in the Billerica Police Department (Department), and he was classified as a disabled veteran under the Massachusetts Civil Service Statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 31, § 26, et al. After a one year probationary period, Angiuoni would have had the opportunity to become a tenured officer. Under the Civil Service Statute, a tenured officer who is a disabled veteran receives preference over all other offers in the event of layoffs, regardless of seniority. Angiuoni's training did not go well, and on several occasions he failed to follow police procedures.
At about the time the Department hired Angiuoni, other police officers, including Angiuoni's supervisor, began to fear that there would be layoffs. Angiuoni claimed that his supervisor said that it was unfair that Angiuoni might receive preference over the supervisor because of Angiuoni's disabled veteran status.
In November 2009, Angiuoni's supervisor and two other managers submitted their evaluation of Angiuoni's performance. Angiuoni's supervisor and another manager gave Angiuoni a negative evaluation, while the third manager's evaluation was positive. The Department failed to provide the evaluations to Angiuoni at that time, placed him on administrative leave (without informing the union of the meeting or Angiuoni of his right to union representation), and the Town ultimately terminated Angiuoni's employment on November 30, 2009 after a Town hearing. Angiuoni sued the Town and the Chief, alleging, among other things, that they violated USERRA.
In response to the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the Court found that the supervisor's alleged statements sustained Angiuoni's burden of showing that his military service was a motivating factor in his termination—even though there was no evidence that the Chief or anyone else in the Town harbored anti-military animus—because an employer can be liable if a supervisor "performs an act motivated by anti-military 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." The Court also ruled that the defendants did not show that they would have terminated Angiuoni regardless of his veteran status because of the defendants' admission that the termination decision was based, in part, on the supervisor's negative evaluation. Finally, the Court determined that the Department's failure to provide the evaluations to Angiuoni until after the termination permitted an inference of pretext.
While veteran status discrimination claims are not as prevalent as other claims of discrimination, this case serves as a reminder of employers' obligations to veterans and military personnel under USERRA. Employers should review their anti-harassment trainings and policies to ensure that they cover protections provided by USERRA and similar state statutes.