On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a near-unanimous decision in the closely watched employment case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 90-400. The Justices, voting 7-1 (Justice Kagen, who had appeared on an amicus brief for the case while still Solicitor General, recused herself), endorsed the controversial "cat's paw" theory of liability, whereby the discriminatory animus of a non-decisionmaker may be imputed to an employer even if the decisionmaker was not himself motivated by any illegal animus.
The case considered the termination of Army Reservist Vincent Staub who worked as an angiography technician at Proctor Hospital and whose obligations to his U.S. Army Reserve unit were the source of much consternation for Staub's immediate supervisors. These supervisors ultimately recommended to their supervisor, Linda Buck, that Staub be fired, pretextually citing violations of company policy. Buck, who had no apparent animus toward Staub's military affiliations, took the termination recommendation under advisement, but decided to terminate Staub only after an independent review of Staub's personnel file.
Upon his termination, Staub sued Proctor for violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which creates liability for an employer when an employee is terminated and a "motivating factor" of the termination is the employee's "membership" or "obligation" to the military. Staub's theory of liability was based on the comments and behavior of his immediate supervisors. Proctor argued in response that because the ultimate decisionmaker, Buck, did not have any apparent anti-military animus and because she made the decision only after an independent review of Staub's personnel file, that Proctor was shielded from liability as a matter of law. The district court rejected this argument and let the case go to a jury, who found for Staub and awarded him damages.
The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that where liability is founded on a "cat's paw" theory -- where the illegal animus of a non-decisionmaker is imputed to the decisionmaker -- there must be a threshold determination that the non-decisionmaker had a "singular influence" over the decisionmaker. The Justices disagreed, however, and held that -- because it is the employer's (i.e., Proctor) liability at issue -- so long as the non-decisionmaker engages in acts intended to result in the the plaintiff-employee's adverse employment action, and so long as those acts were the proximate cause of the adverse employment action, then "the discriminatory motive of one of the employer's agents . . . can be aggregated with the act of another agent . . . to impose liability" on the employer, even if the ultimate decisionmaker was not motivated by illegal animus. In other words, because it is the employer's decision -- and not the decision of an individual supervisor -- that is the basis for liability under USERRA, the acts of non-decision-making employees can create liability for the employer, so long as those acts proximately caused and "were designed and intended to produce" the adverse employment action.
Though this decision was based on the statutory language of USERRA, the holding in this case may be far reaching. The Justices themselves noted the similarity in statutory language between USERRA and Title VII, which serves as the basis for considerable employee-employer litigation.