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Employer Liable Under USERRA in 'Cats' Paw' Ruling

May 14, 2011
Related Topics: Wrongful Discharge, Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article
Vincent Staub, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and an employee of Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois, received a “corrective action” disciplinary warning in January 2004 from his supervisor, Janice Mulally, for purportedly leaving his work area even though he was not with a patient.
Three months later, Mulally's supervisor, Michael Korenchuk, informed hospital vice president of human resources Linda Buck that Staub had violated the corrective action that required Staub to report to Mulally or Korenchuk when he completed his cases. Buck terminated Staub, relying on Korenchuk's accusation and a review of Staub's personnel file, which contained at least five separate complaints about job performance and attitude.
Staub disagreed with his termination under the hospital's internal procedures, alleging that Mulally fabricated the allegations because of an anti-military bias against him. Buck did not investigate Mulally's claim and adhered to her termination decision. Staub sued Proctor under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, claiming that his termination was motivated by hostility regarding his obligations as a military reservist. Staub did not claim that Buck had any such hostility, but that Mulally and Korenchuk did and their actions influenced Buck's ultimate decision.
After a jury found in Staub's favor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago reversed it. The 7th Circuit held that in such a “cat's paw” case, where the terminated employee sought to hold his employer liable for the animus of a supervisor who was the ultimate decision-maker, he could not succeed because he could not show that the supervisors exercised singular influence over the decision-maker and that the supervisors' anti-military bias was a motivating factor in Staub's termination.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the 7th Circuit's reasoning and held that “if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military 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.” Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400 (March 1, 2011).
IMPACT: The court noted that USERRA's anti-discrimination provisions are “very similar to Title VII,” meaning that the “cat's paw” theory will likely apply to discrimination claims under other laws such as Title VII. Also important to the court's finding of liability: Buck did not independently investigate Staub's allegations of Mulally's anti-military bias in the corrective action. Thus, employers should be careful to investigate such claims, rather than simply relying on the supervisor's input, in order to avoid “cat's paw” liability.
Workforce Management, May 2011, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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