In a highly anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled earlier this week, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, that an employer can be held liable under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) for unlawful discrimination by an official other than the primary decision-maker. In this case, Vincent Staub, an Army reservist, was fired from his civilian job as a hospital technician. In the weeks leading up to his termination, Staub was disciplined by his supervisors for allegedly insubordinate behavior. Staub was eventually terminated by the Vice President of Human Resources after Staub allegedly engaged again in similar insubordinate behavior. The Vice President of Human Resources testified that her decision to terminate Staub was based partly on the recent allegations of insubordination by Staub's supervisors. Applying traditional agency law principles, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Staub, finding that he had presented evidence of his two immediate supervisors' expressed antimilitary bias and their contribution to the unbiased Vice President of Human Resources' decision to fire him. Specifically, the 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."
The Supreme Court's ruling is significant not only because it reverses the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit's ruling that would have required Staub to prove the immediate supervisors had a "singular influence" on the unbiased decision-maker in order to pursue a cat's paw case, but because it has the potential to sweep broadly across all federal workplace discrimination laws, not just cases decided under USERRA. Under the Supreme Court's application of the cat's paw theory, employers may now have more difficulty insulating themselves from discriminatory acts of immediate supervisors, even with unbiased review and decision-making by higher management and/or human resources personnel.