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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today in two cases in favor of military personnel.
And as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, one case involved employment discrimination; the other, the rights of veterans to appeal a denial of benefits.
NINA TOTENBERG: First, the employment discrimination case, a case with implications far beyond the military.
Vincent Staub, a first sergeant in the Army Reserves, was fired after working for 15 years as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois. Federal law requires employers to give reservists time off for their training and service obligations, and Staub had no difficulties at the hospital for more than a decade.
But in 2000, a new supervisor started scheduling him for times she knew he was due to be at Reserve training. Then in 2004, he was notified that he would be called back to active duty.
Mr. VINCENT STAUB (Army Reserves): My boss knew what was coming, and within days, that's when, you know, the ball went into motion of the false allegations.
TOTENBERG: After his firing, Staub 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 $57,000 in back pay and damages under a federal law that bars employment discrimination against military personnel. A federal appeals court threw out the award, ruling that the hospital was not liable since the ultimate firing decision wasn't made by the immediate supervisors but by a more senior official, the hospital vice president for human resources, and there was no evidence the HR chief bore any animus to the military.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said that liability for a firing cannot be delinked from a supervisor's animus by simply giving the ultimate decision-making authority to someone else.
After all, the ultimate decision-maker relies on entries made in the personnel file by the immediate supervisors. The employer is at fault, Scalia said, 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 ruling is a big deal, according to experts. First, 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 importantly, many large employers in recent years have sought to protect themselves from discrimination suits by vesting final decision-making authority in HR departments, a sort of safe harbor, says Tom Goldstein, who teaches Supreme Court advocacy at Stanford and Harvard law schools.
Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Stanford University; Harvard University): Those HR departments wouldn't have any discriminatory motive, and the employers thought that would protect them from lawsuits, and 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.
TOTENBERG: In a second case today, this one involving military veterans, the court ruled, again unanimously, that a court set up to rule on appeals in veterans benefit cases should not rigidly enforce time deadlines for veterans with serious mental illnesses.
David Henderson, a Korean War combat veteran suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, was awarded 100 percent disability benefits. In 2001, he filed the claim for supplemental benefits based on his need for in-home care.
When his claim was rejected, he appealed to the Veterans Court. But his appeal was thrown out because he missed the deadline by 15 days.
In other civil cases, the Supreme Court has rigidly enforced deadlines, so rigidly that in one recent case an appeal was thrown out despite the fact that the judge mistakenly set the wrong deadline.
But today the justices said the Veterans Court is different because the initial hearings before the VA are non-adversarial, the vets usually represent themselves, and when they appeal, they win some form of relief an astonishing 79 percent of the time.
So today's decision will have a significant effect, allowing hundreds of appeals to go forward that had been thrown out as filed too late.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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