Thursday, December 15, 2016

Qualifications Aside: A Plaintiff’s Initial Burden under USERRA

In Carroll V. Delaware River Port Authority, a recent case from the Third Circuit, the Court addressed whether, in sustaining a discrimination suit under the Uniformed Services Employment Act (USERRA), a claimant must plead and prove that he or she was objectively qualified for the position sought.

Plaintiff, Anthony Carroll, sued the Port Authority after it declined to promote Carroll to sergeant.  Carroll was employed as a police officer by the Port Authority in 1989 and simultaneously held positions in the United States Navy and the Pennsylvania National Guard.  In early 2009, Carroll was deployed to Iraq where he sustained injuries which lead to brain injury, high-frequency hearing loss, degenerative disk disease, and other conditions.  Carroll returned to the United States in 2009 and was in rehabilitation until he was honorably discharged in 2013.  In 2010 and 2012, while Carroll was on active-duty status in rehab, he applied for a promotion to sergeant with the Port Authority.  Despite being interviewed, both in 2010 and 2012, Carroll did not receive the promotion.

The Port Authority argued that it was Carroll’s burden to show that, by a preponderance of the evidence, both that he was objectively qualified for the position sought and that his military service was “a substantial or motivating factor” in the adverse employment action.  In contrast, Carroll argued that a plaintiff’s objective qualifications are relevant to an USERRA analysis only after a plaintiff meets his or her initial burden.  The Court agreed with Carroll.

The Third Circuit stated that the statute is unambiguous. An employer violates USERRA if a plaintiff’s “membership in the uniformed services is a motivating factor in the employer’s action, unless the employer can prove that the action would have been taken in the absence of such membership.”  Plaintiffs thereby meet their initial burden in merely showing that their military membership was a “substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action.”  Therefore, although plaintiffs do not need to raise their objective qualifications at the onset of the suit, employers can nonetheless raise a plaintiff’s objective qualifications as a non-discriminatory justification for refusing to promote.

Although the Port Authority will have non-discriminatory justifications for their refusal to promote Carroll, Carroll’s initial complaint will proceed regardless.  This case reminds employers of just how low the burden is for plaintiffs to sustain a USERRA discrimination suit.