On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Staub v. Proctor Hospital that an employer charged with intentional discrimination may be held liable for an adverse employment decision based on the discriminatory actions of a supervisor who was not the ultimate decision-maker. This ruling endorsed the “cat’s paw” theory of discrimination (so named because of an analogy to an Aesop’s fable). In a case alleging intentional discrimination, a plaintiff ordinarily must show that the person making the challenged employment decision was motivated at least in part by discriminatory consideration of a protected factor such as race or gender. In a “cat’s paw” employment discrimination case, on the other hand, the plaintiff does not allege that the decision-maker was biased. Instead, the plaintiff alleges that someone else, acting with discriminatory animus, exerted influence on, but was not ultimately responsible for, the adverse action taken against the plaintiff. In Staub, the Supreme Court addressed this theory for the first time in the context of a case alleging claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their military service.

The Court’s Decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital

Plaintiff Vincent Staub, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, worked as an angiography technician for defendant Proctor Hospital. Mr. Staub’s immediate supervisors were reportedly hostile to his military obligations, and in January 2004, Mr. Staub was disciplined by one of the supervisors for allegedly violating a company rule. Mr. Staub maintained that the discipline and the corrective action notice that accompanied it were motivated by the supervisors’ bias against his military service. In April 2004, one of the supervisors reported to the hospital’s vice president of human resources that Mr. Staub had violated a directive issued as part of his corrective action. The human resources executive reviewed Mr. Staub’s personnel file and, relying in part on the supervisor’s report, made the decision to terminate Mr. Staub. Mr. Staub filed an internal grievance with the hospital challenging his termination. After that grievance was investigated and denied, Mr. Staub filed suit under USERRA, claiming that his termination was motivated in part by antimilitary bias. Mr. Staub’s lawsuit was based on the “cat’s paw” theory of discrimination – in effect, the decision of the unbiased human resources executive was influenced and unlawfully tainted by the biased actions of the supervisors.

The Supreme Court 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.” The Court reasoned that Mr. Staub’s supervisors acted with a discriminatory motive when they disciplined him, and that discipline ultimately led to his termination, even though the termination decision-maker was not shown to have considered Mr. Staub’s military service in any way. Because an act caused by discriminatory animus was “a motivating factor in the employer’s action,” the termination decision violated USERRA.

The Court rejected the hospital’s argument that evidence of the decision-maker’s independent investigation of Mr. Staub’s allegations of discrimination negated the effect of any prior discrimination, finding that the investigation in this case relied on discriminatory actions taken by a biased supervisor. Although the Court acknowledged that an independent investigation could, under certain circumstances, preclude liability, the action of the biased supervisor here remained a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action under the facts of the case.

Practical Implications

The Staub decision continues the Court’s trend of expanding worker protections from discrimination under federal employment statutes. Although the case was brought under USERRA, employers should be aware that the holding will likely apply as well to cases brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and other federal antidiscrimination laws. In the wake of Staub, employers should carefully review adverse employment decisions made by a manager or supervisor who relied, in whole or in part, on the reports or actions of another individual. The existence of an unbiased decision-maker or an independent investigation will not be enough to overcome discrimination claims where the discriminatory action of a biased supervisor or employee is a proximate cause of the adverse action.