The Supreme Court's decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital involved a claim of wrongful termination made by a member of the military reserves who was employed as a technician by a hospital. The plaintiff, Vincent E. Staub, was frequently absent from work when he performed his duties as a reservist. His first and second-line supervisors resented his absences, which they felt caused others in the department to work harder to make up the slack. Staub's supervisor issued a corrective action notice relating to his absences. When the supervisor subsequently determined that Staub had violated the write-up, he sent Staub's file to human resources for further action. The HR manager reviewed Staub's file and the supervisor's write-up, and based on the facts given to him by the supervisor, made the decision to terminate Staub's employment.
Staub filed suit for wrongful termination of his employment on the ground that it is unlawful for an employer to hold his military reservist obligations against him. A trial ensued and the jury ruled in his favor. However, the hospital appealed and the appeals court reversed the trial court's decision and ruled in favor of the hospital. The appeals court concluded that the decision to fire Staub was made by the HR manager independent of the supervisor who had issued the prior discipline.
The Supreme Court, however, reversed the appeals court's decision. The court ruled that the bias of Staub's supervisor may be imputed to the hospital's HR manager since that manager relied on facts contributed by the supervisor, who was hostile toward Staub because of his reservist obligations.
Decisions made by non-supervisors may be considered biased if the decision-maker relies on facts provided by a line supervisor. Consider how the ruling could affect the typical discriminatory disciplinary cases we see every day:
- An employee of 10 years' standing who receives excellent evaluations gets a new supervisor. A few months later, she is diagnosed as suffering from a
chronic medical condition that requires intermittent visits to doctors and an occasional day off. The employee has no built-up credit with the new supervisor, and the new supervisor believes that the employee is a drain on his staff. When the time comes for a midyear review, the supervisor downgrades the employee's performance and thereafter proposes that she receive a letter of reprimand for substandard performance and attendance. The ultimate decision-maker is someone who has never met the employee and has no knowledge of her personal health issues. He sustains the reprimand based on the supervisor's recommendations. The employee may bring a claim of discrimination against the agency, contending that the bias of her supervisor influenced the decision-maker. Based on Staub, the decision should be viewed as if it were made by the biased supervisor.
Consider also how the ruling could affect the typical non-selection cases we see every day:
- An African American employee applies for a promotion for which he is qualified. The promotion is open to individuals who satisfy the requirements of the posting. There are few African Americans holding supervisory jobs in the agency and he has been told in the past not to expect such a promotion by his first-line supervisor-who denies having made the comment. Although the supervisor is not on the interview panel, the three panel members are white males who are friends with the supervisor. The supervisor speaks with the panel about the applicant, and during interviews the applicant feels like the panel is going through the motions and rushing him out. He does not get the job. Instead, it is given to a white male who applied from outside the agency and who does not meet one of the qualifications for the job, a certification, but is granted a waiver of that requirement by the panel. The selection is "justified" by a statement lauding the selectee's experience. The unsuccessful candidate may bring a claim of discrimination against the agency contending that the bias of his supervisor influenced the panel, and that under Staub, the panel's decision to select the white applicant should be viewed as if it were made by the biased supervisor. Clearly, the Supreme Court's ruling in Staub is a victory for employees' rights. In the past, agency decision makers claimed ignorance of biases when terminating employees. Now, however, if a decision-maker relies on the facts provided by a line supervisor, the agency is liable. Staub removes a key defense agencies had previously asserted against claims of discrimination.
Alan Lescht has been successfully litigating employment discrimination, civil rights, and commercial litigation cases for more than 23 years. He is a founding
partner of Alan Lescht & Associates, PC, where he oversees the firm's employment litigation and counseling practices. For more information on the firm, go to www.dcemploymentattorney.com.