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U.S. Supreme Court ruling extends federal job discrimination laws

The Supreme Court decision protects workers from bias from all of their supervisors.

March 02, 2011|By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court extended the reach of federal laws against job discrimination, ruling Tuesday that employees are protected from illegal bias not just from a top decision maker but from other supervisors as well.

The justices said the crucial issue was whether illegal bias was a "motivating factor" in the decision to fire an employee.

Companies and public agencies are not shielded from liability, they said, simply because the supervisor who made the decision to fire a worker did so for valid reasons. If other supervisors are biased and influence the outcome, the employer can be held at fault, they said.

For at least a decade, lower courts have been split over whether the workplace civil rights laws should focus narrowly on the single supervisor who makes hiring and firing decisions, or more broadly on the many supervisors who influence the outcome.

By a unanimous vote, the high court opted for the broad approach.

"An employer's authority to reward, punish or dismiss is often allocated among multiple agents," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "The one who makes the ultimate decision does so on the basis of performance assessments by other supervisors."

"The employer is at fault," he said, if the "discriminatory animus" of one of its supervisors "was intended to cause, or did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision."

The decision restores a $57,640 jury verdict in favor of Vincent Staub, an Army reservist who was fired from his job as a medical technician at the Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill. He contended two of his supervisors were biased against him because he was absent on weekends because of his military duties.

They said he put a "strain on the department" and others had "to bend over backwards to cover" for him.

The complaints reached the hospital's vice president for human resources. She looked into comments that Staub was "abrupt" with others and was sometimes missing from his work location. She decided to dismiss him.

Staub sued, relying on the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act of 1994, which forbids discrimination against employees because of their military duties.

Justice Scalia said this law is "very similar" to other federal civil rights laws that forbid discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. Both statutes are triggered if the illegal bias was a "motivating factor" in the employer's decision.

Though a jury ruled for Staub, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out the verdict. Its decision discounted the comments of his direct supervisors and said the vice president for human resources acted on her own.

Then-U.S. Solicitor Gen. Elena Kagan had urged the Supreme Court to hear the case of Staub vs. Proctor Hospital and to adopt the broader interpretation of the federal workplace discrimination laws. They did so in an 8-0 vote, with Kagan not participating.

david.savage@latimes.com

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