(CN) – An employer can be held liable for discrimination after succumbing to pressure from workers to fire a U.S. Army Reservist, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, reversing a decision from the 7th Circuit.
Vincent Staub had won more than $57,600 from a jury after suing Proctor Hospital for employment discrimination. As a member of the Reserve, Staub had to attend drill one weekend every month and train full time for two to three weeks a year.
The angiography technician had claimed two ranking members in his department disliked his military obligations and were bent on firing him. He said he was fired after the supervisors filed trumped-up disciplinary warnings against him.
But the 7th Circuit reversed that decision and granted the hospital judgment as a matter of law, finding that Staub failed to show that the company relied blindly upon the allegedly hostile workers’ opinions.
The case addresses the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability for workplace discrimination, which holds an employer liable when a biased worker influences the company to demote or fire another employee.
Drawing upon an Aesop-inspired fable from 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine, the term “cat’s paw” comes from a tale about a monkey that persuades a cat to pull chestnuts from a fire, causing the cat to burn his paw.
In reversing the decision, the unanimous Supreme Court held that an employer is at fault if “one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision.”
With ample evidence that the supervisors were hostile toward Staub’s military obligations, and that the termination was based on Staub having “ignored” the supervisors’ disciplinary charges, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the 7th Circuit had erred.
Because the trial court was less precise in its instruction of the jury, the court noted that it could not simply reinstate the verdict. It remanded the case to the 7th Circuit to decide if the difference amounts to “harmless error.”
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, authored a concurring opinion that says the majority unnecessarily strayed from the statutory text. Such “contrary” reasoning will lead to confusion and not serve the interests of employers or employees in military service, Alito wrote.
The minority opinion goes on to say that the decision “may have the perverse effect of discouraging employers from hiring applicants who are members of the Reserves or the National Guard.”
Scalia rejected that theory in the majority opinion.
“We find both speculative and implausible Justice Alito’s prediction that our nation’s employers will systematically disfavor members of the armed services in their hiring decisions to avoid the possibility of cat’s-paw liability, a policy that would violate USERRA in any event,” Scalia wrote, using the acronym in reference to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.
Oral arguments for the case occurred in November. Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case.