The Supreme Court has provided some answers as to when “an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.” As I discussed in a post last month, the decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital has been among the top employment cases to watch in 2011.
As a quick summary of the case – Staub, a hospital technician, sued his former employer, Proctor Hospital, alleging violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). He claims that he was terminated because of his supervisors’ hostility towards his military obligations – even though the VP of Human Resources was the one who pulled the trigger and terminated him. Thus, the determination of whether Staub’s military obligations were a motivating factor in his termination required the Court to explore the situation where the company official who terminated the employee had no discriminatory animus. That is where the Cat’s Paw theory comes in – the real question boils down to how far down the chain of non-decisionmakers can discriminatory animus exist and be imputed to the employer.
In this case, the VP of Human Resources received a report that Staub violated a disciplinary warning from one of his supervisors – who was “hostile to his military obligations.” After reviewing Staub’s personnel file, the VP of Human Resources fired him. Staub filed a grievance, claiming that the discipline was a product of fabrication, deriving from his supervisors’ disapproval of his recurring military obligations. While the VP of HR was not motivated by discriminatory animus, he contended that his supervisors unlawfully discriminated against him, in violation of USERRA.
In reversing the Seventh Circuit’s decision and remanding the case, the Court held that an employer is liable under the Cat’s Paw theory if: (1) a supervisor performs an act motivated by discriminatory animus (in this case, hostility towards the military); (2) the act is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action; and (3) the act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action. “[I]f the employer’s investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor’s original biased action . . . then the employer will not be liable.”
What companies should remember after this case: When terminating employees, companies need to take a close look at the process leading up to the termination. There are many questions companies should ask: Why is the company taking the adverse action? What led to that decision? Who provided input into this decision? Was any input from a supervisor “rubber-stamped” or did Human Resources conduct an independent investigation?
While the court did not create a solid rule that an independent investigation will foreclose liability under the Cat’s Paw theory, it is among the most important things a company can do to protect itself from claims brought under this theory.
The Supreme Court recently articulated the zone of interest test for Title VII retaliation claims, so between these two cases, employers have a myriad of issues to consider when determining whether a termination is permissible. Because the language of USERRA closely resembles that of Title VII, the Court will likely choose to extend the Staub reasoning to Title VII cases in the future.
Want to read more about the Cat’s paw theory? Check out:
- The SCOTUSblog opinion recap offering a great summary of case.
- The Connecticut Employment Law Blog , describing this case as “the most significant of this year’s Court term.”
- The FMLA Insights Blog explaining that the case is “a clear victory for plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys, particularly in jurisdictions such as the Seventh Circuit (which encompasses Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) that had previously adopted more limited versions of the ‘cat’s paw’ theory.”