The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of military personnel in two separate cases — one involving employment discrimination and the other the rights of veterans to appeal a denial of benefits.
The employment discrimination case, with implications far beyond the military, was brought by Vincent Staub, a first sergeant in the Army Reserves. He was fired after working for 15 years as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill.
Federal law requires that employers give reservists time off for their training and service obligations, and Staub had no difficulties at the hospital for more than a decade.
In 2000, however, a new supervisor started scheduling Staub for times he was due to be at reserve training.
Then in 2004, shortly after Staub was notified that he would be called back to active duty, his supervisor issued a disciplinary order accusing him of violating a company rule.
"My boss knew what was coming," Staub says, "and within days ... the ball went into motion with the false allegations."
Staub was fired, and he then sued the hospital, alleging that his immediate supervisors were hostile to his military service and that they plotted to get rid of him.
A jury awarded him $57,640 in damages under a federal law that bars employment discrimination against military personnel.
But a federal appeals court threw out the award. It ruled that the hospital could not be held liable because the ultimate decision to fire Staub was not made by his immediate supervisors. Instead, it was made by a more senior official — the hospital's vice president of human resources, who bore no animus toward the military.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, sending the case back with orders to either reinstate the jury verdict or have a new trial.
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said liability for a firing cannot be severed from a supervisor's animus simply by giving the ultimate decision-making authority to someone else. After all, he reasoned, the ultimate decision-maker relies on entries in the personnel file made by the immediate supervisors.
"The employer is at fault," Scalia wrote, "because one of its agents [the immediate supervisor] committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision."
The court's decision is significant, according to experts. It likely applies to discrimination claims based on race, gender and religion as well, since the law at issue in this case mirrors the language in other employment discrimination statutes.
Perhaps more important, many large employers in recent years have sought to protect themselves from discrimination suits by vesting final decision-making authority in human resources departments. This practice serves as a sort of safe harbor, says Tom Goldstein, who teaches Supreme Court advocacy courses at Stanford and Harvard.
"Those HR departments wouldn't have any discriminatory motive, and the employers thought that would protect them from lawsuits," Goldstein observes. But "the Supreme Court today said no. If a supervisor acts with a discriminatory motive, that's your supervisor, and you're going to be held responsible."
A Victory For Tardy Veterans
In the second military case, this one involving veterans, the court was again unanimous. It ruled that a court set up to decide appeals in veterans' benefit cases should not rigidly enforce filing deadlines for veterans with serious mental illnesses.
David Henderson, a Korean War combat veteran, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given a 100 percent disability rating.
In 2001, he filed a claim for supplemental benefits based on his need for in-home care. When his claim was rejected, he appealed to the Veterans Court.
His appeal was dismissed, however, because he missed the deadline by 15 days.
In other civil cases, the Supreme Court has rigidly enforced deadlines. In one recent case, an appeal was thrown out despite the fact that the judge mistakenly set the wrong deadline. But in this case, the justices said the Veterans Court need not be so rigid.
The justices distinguished the Veterans Court from other courts on grounds that the initial hearings before the Veterans Administration are nonadversarial. The veterans usually represent themselves, and when they appeal to the Veterans Court, they win some form of relief an astonishing 79 percent of the time.
In other words, initial VA decisions are shown to be wrong most of the time they are appealed, with the only hope resting in the Veterans Court. And Tuesday's Supreme Court decision will allow hundreds of appeals to go forward that had been thrown out as untimely.
The Court Gets 'Personal'
In a third, unrelated opinion, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that corporations do not have a "personal privacy" interest that shields their records from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
The case centered on big telecom companies. The Federal Communications Commission investigated AT&T, and Comcast, an AT&T competitor, sought records of the investigation under FOIA. AT&T argued that corporations were covered by FOIA's "personal privacy" exemption.
The court disagreed. In an opinion as much about the English language as about the law, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that "adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always." For instance, he noted, "corny ... has little to do with corn," and "personal" has little connection to "person." Thus, the statute's reference at one point to corporations as persons is not dispositive.
"In fact," Roberts said, "we often use the word 'personal' to mean precisely the opposite of business-related" — as in personal expenses, personal life and personal opinion.
Thus, the court held, the ordinary meaning of "personal privacy" applies to individuals, not corporations.
To this Roberts added: "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."