Supreme Court Issues Employee-Friendly Decision in USERRA Case

Today, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that an employer may be liable under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) when the discriminatory actions of an employee who doesn’t make employment decisions influence the employment decisionmaker. More specifically, the Court noted, “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.”

In Staub, Vincent Staub, a member of the military reserves, sued his employer after his employment was terminated, alleging he was a victim of antimilitary discrimination in violation of USERRA. Staub based his claim on his supervisors’ alleged antimilitary bias, asserting they influenced the manager who fired him, even though the manager claimed he didn’t take such bias into account. In making his claim, Staub used the theory of cat’s-paw liability, which basically means one person has manipulated another. In an employment law context and specifically in this case, Staub used cat’s-paw liability to claim the employer was liable because his biased supervisors convinced the decision-making manager to take the adverse employment action (discharge) even though the decisionmaker may not have had any bias.

A trial court jury awarded Staub almost $60,000 in damages. However, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that to find liability under the cat’s-paw theory, the manipulating employee must exert “singular influence” over the final decisionmaker. The Seventh Circuit subsequently reversed because it determined there was no evidence that Staub’s supervisors asserted such singular influence.

The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s decision. The Court noted that:

  • Staub’s supervisors acted within the scope of their employment when they took the actions that allegedly caused the decision-making manager to fire Staub;
  • there was evidence that the supervisors’ actions were motivated by their hostility toward his military service;
  • there was evidence that the supervisors’ actions played a role in the decisionmaker’s decision to fire Staub; and
  • there was evidence that the supervisors’ intention was to get Staub fired.

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