Supreme Court Ruling Bolsters Need For Thorough Investigations and Training

March 7, 2011

Last week the Supreme Court held that an employer may be liable for the discriminatory motives of a supervisor, even when the individual making the employment decision had the purest of motives.  The Court’s ruling will trigger human resources departments everywhere to reconsider employment-related decisions where supervisors influence or even provide input into the ultimate decision.

The Court’s decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital involved what is known as the “cat’s paw” theory in which many courts have found liability against an employer even when the ultimate decision maker is admittedly unbiased, if the affected employee’s supervisor harbors discriminatory animus.  Staub actually involved a claim of discrimination under USERRA, the law protecting employees from discrimination based upon their service in the military.  In the case, the employee’s immediate supervisor engaged in a course of conduct against the employee which clearly showed his anti-military feelings.  When the employee violated one of the supervisor’s warnings to report to him whenever the employee had completed a task, the human resources manager terminated the employee with little investigation into the matter, relying upon a review of the employee’s personnel file and recommendations from the supervisor.  The employee’s involvement with the military played no role in the human resources manager’s decision to terminate Staub.  However, the Supreme Court found that under such circumstances, the employer may be held liable for discrimination.

This decision serves as a sobering reminder that it is imperative that supervisory personnel be adequately trained on what laws protect employees from discrimination.  It also means that the job of human resources professionals has gotten much harder.  While the Supreme Court refused to adopt a steadfast rule immunizing employers who perform independent investigations of the conduct that led to the adverse employment action, it did provide some guidance:

“Thus, if the employer’s investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor’s original biased action (by the terms of USERRA it is the employer’s burden to establish that), then the employer will not be liable. But the supervisor’s biased report may remain a causal factor if the independent investigation takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was, apart from the supervisor’s recommendation, entirely justified.”

Accordingly, human resources will now, apparently, have to question the motives of any supervisor or supervisors who are claimed to have made, caused or influenced an adverse employment-related decision to be made.