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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Holds Employer Can Be Liable for Firing Spurred by Biased Supervisor

Posted Mar 1, 2011 11:11 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with an Army reservist who claims he was fired from his hospital job because of a biased supervisor who intended to influence the decision to let him go.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 for Vincent Staub, a hospital technician in Peoria, Ill., who alleged his supervisor was angry about his military commitment and created trumped-up charges that resulted in his firing. The human resources executive who made the firing decision was not aware of the bias, however.

The issue was whether an employer can be held liable based on unlawful intent by employees who did not make an employment decision but had an influence on the decision-maker. The court, in a decision (PDF) by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the employer may be liable if the supervisor intended to cause a firing or other adverse employment action, and the supervisor is the proximate cause of the adverse action.

SCOTUSblog notes that the case was based on a statute barring military discrimination, but the law has similar wording to Title VII, which bars job discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion and national origin. As a result, the decision could have "major consequences."

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in the judgment, in an opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito argued that the majority opinion will too often impose liability on employers by allowing employees to show that bias motivated some kind of action that, in turn, caused the firing decision. Instead, he said, he would hold that employers are liable if the person making the firing decision is simply a rubber stamp to a biased supervisor's recommendation or when the decision-maker is put on notice about possible bias.

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