The United States Supreme Court recently handed down a ruling that says employees are protected from illegal bias in the workplace from supervisors who have influence over a firing decision, even if the supervisor is not the ultimate decision maker. The Supreme Court justices say in a unanimous ruling that the crucial issue in the job discrimination case is whether illegal bias was a "motivating factor" in the decision to terminate the employee.
Lower courts have struggled with the issue for more than a decade. The lower federal courts were split over whether a company could be he liable for a wrongful termination based upon a claim that a supervisor who did not make the ultimate firing decision influenced the outcome.
The high court says that a company is not shielded from liability in a workplace discrimination case simply because the ultimate decision maker made the decision to fire an employee for valid reasons, if prior influence from a non-decision making supervisor engaged in workplace bias and influenced the firing decision.
A military reservist brought the original lawsuit. He claimed that his supervisors were biased against him due to his duties with the Army Reserve on weekends. The reservist says his supervisors said his military duty put strains on scheduling in the department over the weekend and other workers "has to bend over backwards" to accommodate the worker's service on the weekends.
Complaints rose up to the president of human resources, who ultimately fired the employee. The human resources person acted on complaints that the reservist was "abrupt" with others and was sometimes missing from his work station. Supervisors had created a rule that the reservist check-in with supervisors if he were to leave his station.
Justice Antonin Scalia says the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act that protects workers from discrimination based upon their military duty is very similar to Title VII. Title VII protects workers from discrimination at work based upon race, religion, sex or national original. Scalia says the standard that triggers the protection is if illegal bias was a "motivating factor" in the decision to fire the employee.
A jury originally found discrimination existed and awarded the reservist damages. A federal appeals court reversed the jury verdict saying the ultimate decision maker had acted alone in firing the employee.
Source: Los Angeles Times, "U.S. Supreme Court ruling extends federal job discrimination laws," David G. Savage 2 Mar 2011