High Court Mulls Taking USERRA Appeal

November 12, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – U.S. Supreme Court justices are considering hearing an appeal in an employment discrimination case about whether an employer can be held liable for the actions of someone other than the manager who took the action alleged to have been discriminatory.


Vincent E. Staub, a fired technician for a Peoria, Illinois, hospital, has asked the high court to review a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which overturned a $57,640 jury verdict in Staub’s favor after a trial of his lawsuit against his former employer, Proctor Hospital.

A Thompson analysis of Staub v. Proctor Hospital found a split in the case law among the nation’s federal appellate courts on the issue of whether the actions of someone other than the suing employee’s primary manager can still make the employer liable. Thompson said the 4th and 7th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals say an employer may be held liable only for the motives of the “formal decisionmaker” or another official who “so dominated the decisionmaking process as to be the functional decisionmaker.”

Meanwhile, the 6th, 9th, 10th and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have ruled that an official whose actions caused the ultimate decision could be the basis of a discrimination action.

Depending on the justices’ ultimate decision about whether to accept the case and their resolution of the legal issues, Thompson said the Supreme Court could affect the implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Justices have asked the U.S. Justice Department to file advisory briefs on the issues, which Thompson said is often an indicator of justices’ interest in a case.   

Staub’s suit alleges that his discharge as an angiography technologist violated USERRA as hospital officials discriminated against him because of his service as an U.S. Army reservist. The hospital claimed the firing was caused by Staub’s insubordination, shirking, and attitude problems.

For its part, the employer in the Staub case argued in its Supreme Court brief that the justices don’t have to resolve the global legal issues because its situation is different from others cited as precedent. Hospital officials insisted that the fact they conducted an independent investigation of Staub’s work history means the other cases no longer apply.

"The circuit courts are in agreement that where a final decisionmaker bases her decision on an independent investigation, the causal link between a non-decisionmaker's alleged bias and the employment decision is broken, and the non-decisionmaker's animus is insufficient to impute liability to the employer," Proctor Hospital said in the brief.

The 7th Circuit’s Staub decision is available here.