In a decision issued on May 10, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer in a case involving alleged wrongful termination in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). In the case of Jones v. Town of Spring Lake, NC, the Fourth Circuit found that the plaintiff failed to establish that his termination was due to his prior military service. While the Court’s opinion is unpublished and does not constitute binding precedent, it offers helpful analysis and application of the legal standard which an employee must satisfy in order to prove a USERRA discrimination claim.
Jones was employed for nearly two years by the Town of Spring Lake. However, shortly after the hiring of a new Town Manager, Jones’ employment was terminated. Jones presented evidence that several Town Board members apparently held negative feelings about Town employees who had served in the military. Jones filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, claiming that his termination was based on his military service.
The USERRA specifically prohibits employers from denying employment to any person who serves or has served in the uniformed services, on the basis of that service. The Fourth Circuit has held that in order to state a claim for employment discrimination under the USERRA, a plaintiff must demonstrate that his or her military service was a “motivating factor” for the employer’s adverse action. However, the USERRA also allows the employer to avoid liability if it can prove that the adverse action would have been taken even in the absence of the employee’s military service. See 38 U.S.C. 4311(c).
After considering Jones’ evidence, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town. Jones appealed, but the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit found that Jones failed to show the alleged hostility of some Town board members towards some employees who had military service records was in any way connected to the decision to terminate Jones’ employment. Further, the Fourth Circuit held that even if Jones had demonstrated such connection, the Town proved “beyond dispute” that it would have terminated Jones “even in the absence of his military status.”
The USERRA provides important employment protections for individuals who serve in the military, and employers must exercise care not to allow such military status to motivate adverse decisions regarding hiring, firing, or other terms and conditions of employment. However, the Jones case offers instructive guidance regarding the ultimate burden upon a plaintiff to demonstrate discriminatory motive in order to state a claim under the USERRA, as well as the statutory defense which employer’s may assert against such claim. Of course, consistently applied EEO policies and practices are critical to USERRA compliance and reducing risk of liability when adverse actions must be taken. Employers are encouraged to consult employment counsel in developing and implementing these policies.