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The Supreme Court Sharpens the Claws of the “Cat’s Paw” Theory

In our July 2009 newsletter, we highlighted then-recent decisions evaluating the “cat’s paw” theory of liability in discrimination cases.  Under that theory, an employer can be liable for discrimination where the supervisor who harbored discriminatory animus towards the plaintiff influenced an adverse action, but did not in fact make the ultimate decision. 

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, cited in that same issue, the plaintiff sued for discriminatory discharge in violation of USERRA, which protects members of the military.  He claimed that he was terminated due to the antimilitary animus of two supervisors.  The company contended that the termination decision was made by an individual in Human Resources who relied, in part, on information provided by the supervisors but who did not herself harbor antimilitary animus.  The plaintiff argued that Human Resources’ actions were insufficient, and that the company was liable for discrimination based on the animus of his supervisors, which led to his discharge.

 While the jury agreed with the plaintiff, the Seventh Circuit did not.  Instead, the Seventh Circuit held that cat’s paw liability exists only where a non-decision making supervisor exercises “singular influence” over the decision maker, such that the discriminatory action was the product of “blind reliance.”  Because the ultimate decision maker in Staub did not rely solely upon the information of the hostile supervisors, but also investigated some of the facts relevant to the termination on her own, the court held that the employer did not violate USERRA when it discharged the plaintiff. 

Last month, the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, finding that the plaintiff had in fact met his burden.  The Court specifically noted that the employer was at fault because “one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and in fact did cause, an adverse employment decision.”  It found, therefore, that an employer is liable for USERRA-based discrimination using the cat’s paw theory where:

  • A supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus;
  • The supervisor intends for that act to cause an adverse employment action; and
  • The act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action.

The Supreme Court’s decision seemingly raises the bar for employers hoping to escape liability for employment decisions prompted by discriminatory animus, even when an unbiased decision maker made the final call after an impartial investigation.  Accordingly, employers should endeavor, whenever possible, to carefully investigate all of the facts and circumstances leading up to a supervisor’s request to terminate an employee, and not to take the supervisor’s version of events at face value.

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© 2021 Vedder PriceNational Law Review, Volume I, Number 140
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About this Author

Elizabeth N. Hall, Vedder Price Law Firm, Labor Employment Attorney
Shareholder

Elizabeth N. Hall is a shareholder  in the firm’s Labor and Employment Practice Area.  Her experience includes defending employers before state and federal courts and administrative agencies in all types of individual employee and class action labor and employment litigation including equal employment opportunity, wrongful and retaliatory discharge and wage and hour issues.  Ms. Hall has successfully argued procedural and employment discrimination issues in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and has particular expertise managing electronic discovery in complex...

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