Employer Liability under USERRA and Staub v. Proctor Hospital

There is an interesting news story on the “News” side of this site. It reports on the legal case of Staub v. Proctor Hospital. The case is particularly newsworthy because it was the first case heard by the U. S. Supreme Court under the current version of the Uniformed Servicemembers Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, popularly known as USERRA. The law dates back to a year or so before the United States entered World War II, and it has been revised and updated several times – most recently in 1994. But it took until 2011 for a case decided under the 1994 law to reach the nation’s highest Federal Court.

I attended the Supreme Court oral argument of the Staub case and got a chance to form some first-hand impressions. I met the now-retired Master Sergeant and his wife. They are truly nice people, dedicated to serving our country. I sensed the preparation and attention that the Supreme Court justices devoted to the case. Their questions to counsel for both sides were respectful, but very direct and probing. I also got the sense that this case was like many USERRA cases.

The hospital where Master Sergeant Staub worked as a radiology technician had been very supportive of his military career, and of the commitments that career entailed. But one particular front-line supervisor didn’t see it that way, and that supervisor created a poisonous working environment that led a hospital executive to make a poorly informed decision. That decision – firing Staub – led to years of litigation through the Federal courts, and ultimately a significant payment of damages. All of that expense, and the ill-feelings that undoubtedly accompanied it, could have been avoided. If the front line supervisor had better training (and probably a better attitude) the conflict with Staub over his work schedule probably would have been avoided. If the Human Resources executive had a better understanding of USERRA, it is likely she would have asked more questions before accepting the supervisor’s unsupported word about the reasons for Staub’s poor evaluation.

USERRA is a tough law. It places demands on employers. But it is manageable, if employees, supervisors and executives understand how it works and why it exists.