The Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital today, addressing whether an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but who did not make, the ultimate employment decision.
Although the case involved the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), that statute’s similarity to Title VII means the outcome of this case could affect people’s ability to fight against a variety of different types of employment discrimination. Both statutes state that unlawful discrimination has occurred if bias was a “motivating factor” behind an employment decision, even if other, legitimate reasons existed.
The Supreme Court ruled today for the fired employee. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.
The Court held that if a worker’s supervisor is motivated by bias and intentionally takes steps to cause the worker to be penalized in some way, which then results in the worker being penalized, then the employer is liable, even if someone else who is free of bias actually carries out the penalty.
The hospital was supported by Big Business interests in an amicus brief filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They had argued that as long as the person who made the actual firing decision was not biased and had made an independent investigation of the facts, then the company could not be held liable for the discriminatory actions leading up to that point. This interpretation, if accepted, could potentially have opened a loophole in anti-discrimination statutes, one where corporations could maneuver their internal processes to shield themselves from liability for unlawful employment decisions.
However, as SCOTUSBlog reports:
[T]he Court majority rejected the hospital’s argument that, since the supervisor who made the final decision actually did her own investigation before acting, that should neutralize the effect of the other supervisors’ bias and get the hospital off the hook. If the biased supervisors’ intent fit into the scenario laid out by the Scalia opinion, the Court said, an investigation by the final decision-maker would not remove liability.
This defeat for the Chamber of Commerce is a victory for workers across the country.