The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with a former hospital lab technician who says his service in the U.S. Army Reserve led to his dismissal.
The decision, based on a federal law intended to prevent job discrimination against members of the military, is the first in which the court has ruled that an employer can be held liable for the discriminatory acts of supervisors who do not make final employment decisions.
The justices voted 8-0 to throw out a federal appeals court ruling in favor of Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill. Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the court ordered the appeals court to reconsider the case of Vincent Staub, an angiography technician.
A jury awarded Staub $57,640 in damages after it found he was fired because of his military service. Staub was fired in 2004 after 15 years at the hospital. He has been in the Reserves since 1984 and was called to active duty in 2003 to train U.S. soldiers in the Iraq war to set up a radiology unit in a field hospital.
The justices said that either the verdict should be reinstated or a new trial should be held.
Staub claimed, and the jury found, that his supervisor was out to get him, motivated by what the trial judge described as her "negative opinion of Staub's military service."
But a more senior executive, not the supervisor, made the ultimate decision on Staub's employment. The federal appeals court in Chicago said there was no evidence that the decision-maker shared the supervisor's anti-military bias. It threw out the verdict and upheld the firing.
"We therefore hold that if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable" under the federal anti-discrimination law for members of the military, Scalia said.
It is unclear whether the court's reasoning also would apply to job discrimination claims brought under other federal laws.
Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case because she worked on it when she served in the Justice Department.
The case is Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 09-400.