Elections will not be the only thing happening on Election Day. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in an important employment discrimination case where the official who fired the plaintiff was free of bias, but her decision was influenced by the bias of others.
Although Staub v. Proctor Hospital involves a rather narrow federal anti-discrimination statute - the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which generally prohibits discrimination in civilian employment on the basis of military service - the reasoning of the decision could apply to the larger universe of federal anti-discrimination statutes. Therefore, this case might affect millions of American workers both in and out of the military who have the right to be treated fairly.
Vincent Staub sued his employer after he was dismissed from his job as a hospital technician. The hospital official who fired him had no unlawful motives. However, according to Staub, she relied on false information provided to her by his supervisor, who did act out of bias against Staub’s military service. Moreover, according to Staub, the decision-maker failed to vet that information in any meaningful way. At trial, the jury returned a verdict in Staub’s favor, but the hospital won a reversal on appeal.
At issue before the Supreme Court is whether an employer can be held liable for employment discrimination based on the unlawful intent of officials who influenced - but who did not themselves make - an adverse employment decision. If the employer can be held liable, then under what circumstances? How much influence must the biased official’s actions have had before that bias can be attributed to the employer? What if the biased action is not the sole cause for the employment decision? How easy or difficult should it be for an employer to evade liability in these circumstances?
As the Supreme Court determines how to answer these questions, it should keep in mind Congress’s repeated efforts to ensure that discrimination has no place in the modern American workplace.