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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Supreme Court Backs Employer Liability for Indirect Discrimination

In an opinion written by Justice Scalia reversing the Seventh Circuit, the Supreme Court held today in Staub v. Proctor Hospital that an employer can be liable for a supervisor’s illegal discrimination even if the supervisor is not the ultimate decision maker who orders an adverse employment action, as long as the supervisor is motivated by discrimination that he or she intended to result in an adverse employment action and the supervisor’s conduct is the proximate cause of that action. This case pertains to unlawful discrimination against a member of the military reserves, but would also apply in gender, race, and other discrimination cases brought under Title VII.

Plaintiff Vincent Staub was a member of the United States Army Reserve who was fired from his job as an angiography technician with Proctor Hospital. Staub claimed that his supervisors were hostile to his military service because they believed that it interfered with his hospital responsibilities. Discrimination in employment against members of the military is illegal under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Staub argued that his supervisors manufactured disciplinary claims against him in order to find a pretext to fire him. A Proctor Hospital staffer in human resources, who did not have any discriminatory animus toward Staub’s military service, fired Staub in part because of the supervisors’ disciplinary actions against him.

The Court rejected the hospital’s claim that an employer can escape liability for the supervisors’ discrimination when the ultimate decision maker -- in this case the human resources staffer -- has no discriminatory intent. Plaintiff still must prove that his supervisors discriminated against him because of his military service and intended the disciplinary actions to result in his firing, and that the disciplinary actions were the proximate cause of his firing. But the company cannot insulate itself merely by having someone else issue termination papers.

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