Wednesday Federal Employment Law Update

Welcome back, fans.  Wednesdays of course are when I post a recent federal opinion on an employment matter.

This week we received an employment opinion from the highest court in the land.  In Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 2011 WL 691244 (March 1, 2011), the U.S. Supreme Court lightened the standard for applying the “cat’s paw” theory of liability to claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”).  A headline description of USERRA is that it is essentially a “Title VII” for military personnel, meaning qualified employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their membership in or obligation to perform  service in a uniformed service. 

In Staub, Plaintiff was an Army reserve member terminated from his employment with Defendant as an angiography technician.  Staub claimed that his supervisor and the supervisor’s boss were both hostile to his ongoing military obligation, which required him to attend drill one weekend per month and to train full time for two to three weeks per year. 

Staub claimed that his supervisors reprimanded him with fabricated infractions due to their animus about his military obligations.  Following a complaint about Staub from another co-worker on an unrelated matter, Defendant’s COO directed Defendant’s VP of Human Resources and one of Staub’s supervisors to craft an action plan to correct Staub’s perceived issues.  Before any such plan was created, one of Staub’s supervisors cited him for another allegedly false infraction.  The VP of Human Resources relied on this infraction and other items in Staub’s file to terminate him.  Staub filed suit, claiming that under the cat’s paw theory, the non-decisionmakers’ animus caused his termination. 

At trial, a jury found that Staub’s military status was a motivating factor in his termination, awarding him $57,640 in damages.  The 7th Circuit reversed, however, finding that Defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  The appellate court held that, under Seventh Circuit precedent, a cat’s paw case required that the biased non-decisionmaker exercise such singular influence over the decisionmaker that the decision to terminate was the product of blind reliance.  The Supreme Court reversed, lightening the standard considerably.  According to the Court, “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 Court remanded the case to the 7th Circuit to decide whether the jury verdict should be reinstated or the case should be retried with the legal standard made clearer to the jury.

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion, which was joined by 6 other justices, with one concurrence and one abstention.

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