A decision of the United States Supreme Court this week makes even more clear that to avoid liability under some federal employment discrimination laws, an employer’s human resources department should complete a thorough, independent review of the facts before making a termination or other adverse employment decision. If that employment decision is influenced in some direct way by a biased supervisor who has acted to cause the negative employment action, the employer may be liable.
In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400 (March 1, 2011), Mr. Staub was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and an employee of Proctor Hospital. His two supervisors resented his membership in the Reserve and particularly the time he spent away from work for training. According to Mr. Staub, they were “out to get him” and made up a work rule that he must remain at his workstation unless he was caring for a patient. Before he could leave his workstation, he had to notify one of the two supervisors. Around the same time, one of Mr. Staub’s coworkers complained to the hospital’s human resources department that Mr. Staub was often unavailable. The supervisors also soon informed human resources that Mr. Staub had violated the reporting rule. The human resources manager reviewed Mr. Staub’s file and decided to terminate him. Mr. Staub objected, saying he had complied with the reporting requirement and that the supervisors made up this reporting rule because they were hostile to his military obligations. The human resources manager did not follow up on Mr. Staub’s claims and instead upheld the termination.
Mr. Staub filed a lawsuit under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which prohibits employers from acting against an employee or job applicant because of that individual’s military membership. An employer is liable if the employee’s membership in the military is a “motivating factor” for termination or other negative action against the employee. A jury found that Proctor Hospital had violated USERRA in terminating Mr. Staub. The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, and ruled that the bias against the employee’s military affiliation must be the “singular influence” over the employer’s action to trigger liability. Because the human resources manager had looked at Mr. Staub’s file and heard earlier from a coworker that Mr. Staub was away from his workstation frequently, the Court of Appeals found the employer had conducted a sufficient independent investigation before terminating.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court found that human resources’ review of the employee’s file and the earlier discussion with the coworker did not protect the employer from liability. The termination decision still had “some direct relation” to the actions of Mr. Staub’s biased supervisors, and that is sufficient for liability under USERRA. The supervisors’ actions were not remote or unrelated to the termination, and human resources did not follow up on the employee’s claims of bias before terminating.
In addition to claims under USERRA, the Staub decision is likely to apply to discrimination claims under Title VII. Further court decisions may provide more information about what is a sufficient independent investigation by the ultimate decisionmaker to avoid liability. In the interim, a thorough review of the facts and follow-up on claims of bias is essential before the employer makes a termination or other adverse employment decision.