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US Supreme Court rules in employment discrimination case

The United States Supreme Court handed down an employment discrimination ruling on Tuesday. The unanimous ruling involved a case where a military reservist was fired from his job as a medical technician. He claimed two of his supervisors harbored bias against him because he was absent on weekends from the job because of his military duties. A separate supervisor reportedly made the decision to fire the worker.

A federal appeals court previously reversed a jury award in the employment discrimination case. The appellate court had ruled that the employer could not be held liable for the animus of a direct supervisor who was not charged with the ultimate decision to fire the employee without a showing that the direct supervisor exercised "singular influence" over the ultimate decision maker's conclusion to fire the employee.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who delivered the opinion of the Court, writes the Uniformed Services Employment and Redeployment Act is very similar to Title VII. Title VII forbids employment discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Scalia says the standard for establishing discrimination is based upon whether animus based upon a protected class is a motivating factor in the firing decision.

Two direct supervisors of the medical technician had said the employee's military status put a "strain on the department." The direct supervisors said others in the department had "to bend over backwards to cover" for him when he was serving weekends in the Army reserve.

The supervisors made a rule that the employee had to notify supervisors any time the employee left his desk. The supervisors complained to the human resources manager that he violated the rule, a claim the employee denies. The employee was fired for allegedly violating the directive from his supervisors.

Justice Scalia writes "employer's authority to reward, punish, or dismiss is often allocated among multiple agents. The one who makes the ultimate decision does so on the basis of performance assessments by other supervisors." The Supreme Court says recommendations of supervisors, designed and intended to produce adverse discriminatory action by an employer, cannot shield the employer from liability.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the decision.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "U.S. Supreme Court ruling extends federal job discrimination laws," David G. Savage 2 Mar 2011

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