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LEGAL UPDATE: Supreme Court expands scope of employee discrimination cases

By: Dean F. Falavolito, Esq.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, a much-anticipated decision that will greatly expand the scope of employee discrimination cases. The case was decided under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), but because USERRA uses the same discrimination standard as Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), this decision could potentially have far-reaching consequences in all discrimination cases.

The issue at hand was whether an employee could state a case for discrimination if the person with the discriminatory motive was not the person who actually made the adverse employment decision against the employee (this is sometimes referred to as a “cat’s paw” case). Specifically, the employee was able to prove that his immediate supervisors were hostile towards him as a result of his military service. The employee was later terminated, but by a superior higher up the corporate ladder who (admittedly) had not been hostile or discriminatory toward the plaintiff because of the plaintiff’s military service.

The Supreme Court held that even if the decision-maker did not have any discriminatory motives toward the employee, the employee can sustain a discrimination claim if the decision maker was even slightly motivated by or relied on any information from the discriminating supervisor. This decision has a far reaching effect on employers, as it potentially makes the employers more likely to be liable for “mid-level” managers’ conduct and makes it far more difficult for an employer to defend a case by claiming that a discriminating employee played no role in the plaintiff’s termination.