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Employer Liability for Biased Supervisor Who Influences Termination

The employment discrimination case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct 1186, 2011 WL 691244 (U.S.), decided on March 1 by the U.S. Supreme Court highlights the critical importance in conducting an objective investigation that confirms the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for discipline before taking action against an employee.

In Staub v Proctor Hospital, the employee was an x-ray technician who served in the military reserve. He was terminated for poor performance and attendance.  The employee claimed that his supervisor had an anti-military bias and intentionally set his schedule to make it difficult for him to fulfill his obligations to the United States Army Reserve. A human resources administrator terminated the employee after reviewing his personnel file, including the supervisor’s report that the employee violated his attendance corrective action plan.

The Supreme Court held that an employer may be liable for the discriminatory motives of a supervisor who causes or influences the ultimate employment decision, even if the supervisor does not make the decision.  “If a supervisor performs an act motivated by [discriminatory] animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a … cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable….” 131 S.Ct at 1194. In this case, the court held that a biased supervisor’s write-up of the employee for violating his attendance plan, which was relied upon by the human resources administrator to dismiss the employee, could establish employer liability for discrimination.

The Court found that the human resources administrator’s investigation prior to the dismissal did not relieve the employer of fault because “if the independent investigation relies on facts provided by the biased supervisor . . . then the employer (either directly or through the ultimate decision maker) will have effectively delegated the fact finding portion of the investigation to the biased supervisor.” 131 S.Ct at 1193.