For more than a decade, Vincent Staub balanced his work as a lab technician at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill., with his U.S. Army Reserve duties. But that relationship began to unravel in 2000 when Staub's supervisor openly denigrated his military service and placed him on weekend work rotations that conflicted with his scheduled drill and training obligations.
Eventually, she convinced the hospital's employment officer that Staub should be fired. "I was surprised and angry," said Staub. "After all, I was serving our country."
The dispute has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices have agreed to decide whether Staub's job is protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act, which prohibits discrimination against employees who are in the Reserves.
The core issue is whether the employer is responsible when a biased supervisor who does not make employment decisions has influenced the ultimate decision maker. It's an example of what lawyers call the "cat's paw theory," stemming from a 17th-century fable in which a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts from a fire. The monkey eats the chestnuts as the cat pulls them out, leaving nothing for the cat except singed paws. In this case, an unbiased and unknowing company official fired Staub and is in court for exercising what Staub alleges was the antimilitary bias of the actual supervisor.
Tension and conflict had developed between the two from 2000 to April 20, 2004, when Staub was terminated. Staub sued Proctor Hospital, claiming that the reasons given for his termination — insubordination, shirking and attitude problems — were a pretext for discrimination based on his association with the military. Proctor said its decision to fire Staub was fair. "Mr. Staub was terminated by an unbiased decision maker, following hospital policies, and after an independent investigation showed no evidence of any bias based on Staub's military service," stated Steve Wilson, a hospital spokesman.
A federal district court jury agreed with Staub, awarding him almost $58,000 in damages, but that was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2009. The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall. "The stakes are high," says AARP Foundation Litigation attorney Tom Osborne. "The court's decision is certain to be applied to other federal antidiscrimination laws."
What it means to you: The court's decision could limit protections for workers under existing federal antidiscrimination laws.
Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.