Today the Supreme Court decided a critical issue in employment discrimination law. For years lawyers and judges have been arguing about whether an employer is liable for employment discrimination when the person with the bias lacked the authority to fire the complaining employee. This situation arises when a supervisor wants to get rid of an employee, but does not have the authority to discipline or fire the person. The supervisor does have the power, though, to write him up, complain about him, or lose the doctor’s note he brought in to explain an absence.
In the case Staub v. Proctor Hospital, a fired employee was tossed out of court because the two employees who discriminated against him were not the ultimate decisionmakers; the person who decided to fire Mr. Staub relied upon a falsified report that Mr. Staub had violated the terms of his disciplinary write-up. That person is referred to as the “cat’s paw,” which does the dirty work of the monkey without knowing it is being used. (These analogies come from an Aesop fable.) Mr. Staub won at trial, but the appeals court held that the employer was insulated because the person who determined to fire him did not have any discriminatory bias.
The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the hospital does not get an automatic win in this circumstance. Instead, the Court reasoned that since corporations work through a “multitude of agents,” one of the agents could have tilted the decision in a discriminatory way. The Court stated it clearly:
“We therefore hold 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. “
The case arose under the law that forbids discrimination against people in the military, or returning from military duty. The opinion makes clear that the same analysis should be applied to Title VII, prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, religion and national origin. It will probably also be extended to age and disability discrimination.