Discrimination by a Low-Level Supervisor Creates Liability for Company

Written by Robert G. Brody on March 25, 2011

The Supreme Court found a Company could be liable for the discriminatory actions of a low-level supervisor.  A defense that the discriminatory conduct of a supervisor was unchecked by upper-level management is no defense at all.  With the proper supervisor training, this employer might have been able to avoid the $57,640 judgment 

Vincent Staub was in the United States Army Reserves.  He was required to miss work to complete his Reservist training.  Staub’s supervisor, Janice Mulally, became annoyed with Staub’s frequent requests for time off, saying it was not fair that everyone else had to cover for Staub.  Mulally then scheduled Staub for extra shifts without warning, and made derogatory comments about the Army Reserves.  In January, Staub was given a disciplinary warning by Mulally for leaving his work station at improper times, a rule Staub said never existed.  As part of a corrective action plan, Staub was required to call Mulally’s supervisor, Michael Korenchuk each time Staub was going to leave his desk.  In April, Korenchuk and Mulally recommended to the company’s Vice President of Human Resources (“VP of HR”) and Chief Executive Officer that Staub be fired for an instance of failing to inform a supervisor he was leaving his desk.  Staub challenged this accusation, saying he left a voicemail for Korenchuk before leaving his desk that day.  The VP of HR reviewed Staub’s personnel file and decided to fire Staub, citing Mulally’s complaints as the reason for discharge. 

Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits discrimination against an employee because of their military activities.  The jury found for Staub, awarding him $57,640.  The Company appealed, claiming it could not be held liable for the actions of a low level supervisor.  The 7th Circuit (covering Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) reversed the jury’s decision. 

Staub appealed to the Supreme Court, which found the company could be liable for the discriminatory animus of a supervisor.  The Court said it was not fair to draw a line and say only upper-level Human Resources personnel or managers who make the ultimate employment decision can be the ones who create liability for discrimination.  It held that if a supervisor discriminates and that is the proximate cause of the ultimate adverse employment action, the Company can be held liable.  In this case, the VP of HR relied on the statements made by Staub’s supervisor in making the decision to fire Staub.    

This is yet another Supreme Court case which makes it clear employers need to be very methodical about discipline.  If the VP of HR had thoroughly investigated the situation, she may have discovered Mulally’s recommendations stemmed from military animus.  Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel and supervisory training on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.

About the Authors

Robert G. Brody is the founding member of Brody and Associates, LLC. He has been quoted and published in national publications and appears as a guest T.V. commentator on contemporary Labor and Employment issues. Learn More