Many employers are familiar with the “mixed motive” theory of liability under federal civil rights laws. This theory states that employers can be liable for discrimination in situations where there were legitimate grounds for disciplining the employee, if race or some other protected category was a significant contributing factor towards the employment decision. A recent case from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Maxfield v. Cintas Corp., used this theory to reverse summary judgment for the employer in a case brought under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA requires employers to provide certain leave rights to reservists and National Guard members, and prohibits interference with employees exercising their right to be away from work. In this case, a terminated sales employee claimed that the employer’s decision was based on his repeated use of military leave. The employee was transferred the day after he returned from leave, and received multiple demotions before being terminated shortly after weekend duty.
Cintas claimed that the employee was terminated due to his work performance, and offered evidence showing that his draws exceeded commissions generated before the transfer. The Eighth Circuit noted the legitimacy of such financial concerns, but concluded that the timing of the demotions and behavior of the employee’s supervisors created questions of fact as to the motivation for the disciplinary action. If the military leave was a significant factor in the decision, and if the employee would not have been disciplined but for the military leave, the employer’s decisions would establish a violation of USERRA. The matter was remanded to the jury for trial. This case demonstrates that even in situations where the employer has legitimate grounds for taking disciplinary action against an employee, if the employee falls under the protection of federal law, the decision should be backed by documentation and other evidence showing that the protected classification was not a motivating factor in the decision.