Supreme Court: Check boss bias before disciplining

March 8, 2011
in Employment Law

On March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Proctor Hospital in Illinois violated the law when it followed two supervisors’ advice to fire an employee without first checking into the facts underlying their recommendation.

Had it done so, the court said, it might have discovered that both supervisors were motivated by illegal anti-military bias.

The lesson: When a supervisor recommends disciplining or firing an employee—especially one belonging to a protected class—always conduct an independent investigation before acting.

The case: Vincent Staub worked at Proctor Hospital as an angiography tech and was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. That meant he frequently missed weekend shifts to participate in military drills.

Staub’s two supervisors complained that his Reserve duty caused scheduling hassles. One even called Staub’s military commander to ask if he could be excused from training. When told he could not, she called him an “a__hole” and hung up. She told a co-worker she wanted to “get rid of” Staub because his military obligations were causing scheduling problems.

One day, Staub completed his work and went to lunch, leaving his other supervisor a message explaining his whereabouts. He told the hospital’s HR director that Staub had left his work station in violation of hospital rules. On the two supervisors’ recommendation, the HR director fired Staub.

Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which protects service members’ employment rights. He alleged that his supervisors’ antipathy for his military service was the underlying reason he had been fired, although the HR director didn’t know about their bias or share it.

After an initial trial and an appeal, the Supreme Court concluded anti-military bias was a “motivating factor” in the termination—and that the hospital could be liable because it made no effort to investigate whether the supervisors might have been looking for an excuse to fire Staub.

The case now goes back to the appeals court for a rehearing. (Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400, U.S. Supreme Court, 2011)

Advice: This decision technically applies only to USERRA cases, but the Supreme Court noted that the law “is very similar to Title VII.” That makes it more likely that other courts will apply the Supreme Court’s reasoning in other discrimination cases. For HR, it means it’s essential to independently check supervisors’ disciplinary recommendations to ensure they have no ulterior motives.

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