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Supervisors’ Discriminatory Animus Equals Liability under USERRA

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Sheralee S. Hurwitz
Foster Swift Employment, Labor & Benefits Quarterly
Spring 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court’s March 1, 2011 decision in Staub v Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. ____ (2011) reminds us that job protections for military personnel are not limited to leave issues or re-employment rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994. USERRA is similar to Title VII, in that it prohibits discrimination in employment decisions generally against members of the military based on their status or service obligations.

Staub was an angiography technician and a member of the United States Army Reserve. Staub’s status required him to attend drill one weekend per month and to train full time for two to three weeks per year. Staub was fired in April 2004. He had been disciplined for violation of a work rule in January 2004, and was terminated for violating the terms of the "Corrective Action" warning.

Staub claimed that the "Corrective Action" was based on a non-existent work rule, and that he did not violate the "Corrective Action." Staub also claimed that his immediate supervisor ("J.M."), and her supervisor ("M.K."), were hostile to Staub’s military obligations. Unfortunately for the employer, the record was replete with remarks confirming both of Staub’s supervisors’ negativity about his military duties, and their perception that these military reserve duties detrimentally affected the departmental work schedule.

The court considered various arguments that the anti-military animus was not a "motivating factor" in the decision to terminate Staub’s employment and so no unlawful discrimination occurred:

  • Another senior manager ("L.B.") in the chain of command made the ultimate decision to terminate, and she had no "discriminatory animus" towards military personnel.
  • L.B. "investigated" Staub’s complaint that his discharge was based on discriminatory animus from the lower level supervisors, and rejected the complaint.
  • Any "animus" by the immediate supervisors was "superseded" in the process by the senior manager’s (L.B.’s) ultimate decision, and so their unlawful military animus was not the "proximate cause" of Staub’s termination and "injury."

The Supreme Court ruled that "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 this case, the senior manager (L.B.) was necessarily relying on information and recommendations of the lower level supervisors in making the termination decision. The pervasive animus could not be clearly separated from the termination decision, and the employer ultimately was held responsible for the supervisors’ discriminatory animus. This Supreme Court decision confirms that inadequate management knowledge of employment law obligations, and inadequate enforcement of them, can prove very costly.

If you have any questions, please contact Sheralee Hurwitz at 616.726.2239.