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eTrends - Supreme Court Endorses “Cat’s Paw” Theory

04.07.2011

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed the so-called "cat’s paw" theory of liability when it ruled that a plaintiff can demonstrate unlawful employment discrimination by showing that a biased supervisor caused an adverse employment action even if the ultimate decisionmaker acted without discriminatory animus. This decision expands the scope of employer liability under federal antidiscrimination law.

While working at Proctor Hospital, Vincent Staub also served in the United States Army Reserve. Staub’s first and second line supervisors were hostile toward his military service. They issued a corrective action to Staub for allegedly violating a company rule and later informed Proctor’s vice president of human resources that he had violated this corrective action. After reviewing his personnel file, the vice president of human resources decided to terminate Staub’s employment, relying in part on the supervisors' report that Staub had violated the corrective action. Staub challenged his termination and claimed that his immediate supervisor had fabricated the corrective action because she was hostile to his military obligations. The vice president of human resources did not investigate Staub’s claims of bias and adhered to her decision to terminate his employment.

Staub sued under USERRA, arguing that his discharge was motivated by his supervisors’ hostility toward his military obligations. The Supreme Court noted that USERRA prohibits adverse employment actions in which the employee’s membership in the military "is a motivating factor in the employer’s action." The Court then held that "if a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA." Applying this standard, the Court concluded that there was evidence that Staub’s supervisors were motivated by hostility toward his military obligations, that they intended to cause his termination, and that their actions were "causal factors" in the vice president of human resources’s ultimate decision to terminate him.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court explained that carrying out an independent investigation will not necessarily shield an employer from liability: "[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. But the supervisor’s biased report may remain a causal factor if the independent investigation takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was, apart from the supervisor’s recommendation, entirely justified." Additionally, while the Court’s holding concerned USERRA, the Court explicitly noted that the operative language of USERRA is "very similar to Title VII," suggesting that the holding may have broad implications.

Staub suggests some guidance for employers. First, employers should continue to train their supervisors to understand antidiscrimination laws and avoid conduct that violates those laws. Second, merely rubberstamping a supervisor’s recommended course of action can be perilous. Accordingly, employers should try to gather information from multiple sources before taking adverse employment actions based on a supervisor’s report. While an independent investigation cannot wholly insulate an employer from liability, it may uncover a supervisor’s discriminatory animus or provide independent information that supports the ultimate employment action. Third, when reports of discriminatory animus on the part of supervisors are raised, employers should not follow the approach taken by the employer in Staub and, instead, should thoroughly investigate those reports before taking adverse action.

The decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital is available here.

Please contact Zeb Anderson with any questions.

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Smith Anderson publishes eTrends periodically as a service to clients and friends. The purpose of this eTrends is to provide general information about a significant legal development in the field of employment law. Readers should be aware that the facts may vary from one situation to another, so the conclusions stated herein may not be applicable to the reader’s particular circumstances.

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