Plaintiff Did Not Have To Prove Discrimination To Win
In a unanimous ruling, the United States Supreme Court held that a plaintiff can prove discrimination even though there is no evidence the ultimate decision maker harbored any discriminatory ill will toward the former employee. The evidence determined that a different employee (not the ultimate decision maker) harbored discriminatory feelings and influenced the “innocent” decision maker thereby causing the adverse employment action to occur.
In Staub v. Proctor, the plaintiff was a medical technician for Proctor. He was also a member of the Army Reserves, which required him to attend drill sessions one weekend per month as well as trainings for two to three weeks per year. Plaintiff’s employment with Proctor was ultimately terminated based on a decision by Human Resources. Plaintiff sued for discrimination under the USERRA, which prohibits employment discrimination based on military service. Plaintiff did not have any evidence that Human Resources was motivated by a desire to discriminate. The evidence demonstrated that the termination decision itself was not made for discriminatory reasons. However, Plaintiff argued that his immediate supervisor harbored a discriminatory attitude and that he ultimately triggered the termination because he had issued him a bogus written warning that played a role in the decision to fire him. The lower courts disagreed on whether the evidence was sufficient to entitle the Plaintiff to a trial on his discrimination claim. The appeals court held that Proctor was entitled to summary judgment because the evidence showed that the ultimate termination decision was made by someone with no discriminatory ill will who independently reviewed the facts and that the decision wasn’t wholly dependent on the written warning that had been issued by Plaintiff’s supervisor.
The United States Supreme Court reversed, holding that the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that the termination decision was proximately caused by the written warning, and that there was some evidence that the written warning was discriminatorily motivated. As a result, the Court held that an employer cannot shield itself from liability simply by demonstrating that the ultimate decision maker did not discriminate. If there is evidence that the ultimate decision maker was influenced by other supervisors who had such a motive, a plaintiff can prove discrimination based on such a theory.
It is clear that human resources needs to double check each termination request to ensure that the supervisor making the recommendation does not have an ulterior motive.