U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Human Resources Departments No Longer Insulate Employers from Discrimination Claims


INTRODUCTION. On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital. Staub, a case brought under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of1994 (USERRA), is the first U.S. Supreme Court decision addressing the “cat’s paw” line of cases, that is, cases involving an adverse employment action which give the appearance that the action is being taken by a neutral party when in reality it is motivated, atleast partly, by a biased supervisor.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND. Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital until 2004, when he was fired. While employed there, Staub was a member of the Army Reserve, which required him to attend training one weekend per month and to train full time for two to three weeks per year. His supervisors were hostile to his military obligations (i.e., scheduled him for additional shifts without notice as “pay back,” made comments that his military obligations amounted to “a bunch of smoking and joking,” and asked others to help “get rid of him.”). InJanuary 2004, Staub’s immediate supervisor issued a “Corrective Action” disciplinary warning against him for allegedly violating a company rule requiring him to stay in his work area when not working with a patient. The directive required him to report to his supervisor when he had no patients and when his work was completed. Staub claimed the company had no such rule and, even if it did, he had not violated it.

A few months later, Staub’s supervisor informed Human Resources that he had left his desk without informing a supervisor in violation of the Corrective Action. Staub challenged the veracity of this claim but the Human Resources Department ultimately relied on the supervisor’s information and, after reviewing his personnel file, fired Mr. Staub.

The employer therefore claimed that the supervisor in question was not involved in the decision to terminate employment, and that the individuals who were involved did not have any discriminatory animus towards Staub.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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