Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Discriminating Supervisors and Employer Liability

The Supreme Court just answered the question of whether an employer can be held responsible for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital (March 1, 2011), an 8-0 decision written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court found that the employer will be held liable for such discrimination in the workplace if: (1) a supervisor of the worker takes a step (writing up a negative evaluation, for example) that is done for a biased reason; (2) that supervisor intends to get the worker fired, demoted or otherwise penalized; and (3) the supervisor’s step is found to be the proximate cause of the ultimate decision -- even if the executive or supervisor who actually carries out the firing or other penalty is someone else, and that person was not at all biased.

The Supreme Court posed the question as follows:
The central difficulty in this case is construing the phrase “motivating factor in the employer’s action.” When the company official who makes the decision to take an adverse employment action is personally acting out of hostility to the employee’s membership in [a protected class such as military service, race or gender], a motivating factor obviously exists. The problem we confront arises when that official has no discriminatory animus but is influenced by previous company action that is the product of a like animus in someone else.
The Court answered the question in favor of the employee, finding that the employer can be held liable for discrimination:
[I]f a supervisor performs an act motivated by [illegal] animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under [the statute].
The Court did provide one caveat, finding that if the ultimate decision maker conducts his/her own investigation and then takes the adverse employment action "for reasons unrelated to the supervisor’s original biased action" then the employer is not liable.

If you have any questions about a workplace issue, call Charny & Associates, 845-876-7500.


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