On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, upholding the "cat's paw" theory of employer liability, under which employers are liable for discrimination where lower-level supervisors with discriminatory motives influence, but do not make, adverse employment decisions made by higher-level managers. The near unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, is likely to greatly increase employer accountability for the actions and recommendations of lower-level supervisors. Vincent Staub worked for Procter Hospital as an angiography technician; he was also a member of the Army Reserves. His immediate supervisors resented his absences, which required coworkers to "bend over backwards" to pick up the slack. In January 2004 Staub was placed on Corrective Action for failing to be at his desk as required, and in April 2004 his supervisor informed HR that Staub was again away from his desk without notifying a supervisor as required. Staub disputed the original Corrective Action, and also said he left a voice mail for his supervisor before leaving his desk in April. The HR Manager largely relied on the supervisor's accusation, reviewed Staub's personnel file, consulted with another HR employee, and decided to terminate Staub's employment.
Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 ("USERRA"), which prohibits discrimination based on military service. Under the so-called "cat's paw" theory, Staub claimed that Procter Hospital was liable for discrimination, because the neutral decision-maker (the HR Manager) relied on information provided by lower-level supervisors who had discriminatory motives and were out to get him fired. After winning in a jury trial, the district court granted Proctor Hospital's motion to dismiss. In affirming, the 7th Circuit had held that the employer should not be liable under the cat's paw theory, because the lower-level supervisors' input was not the "singular influence" on the decision, and because the HR Manager conducted "her own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision" and therefore was not "wholly dependent" on the discriminatory input.
Staub begins with an analysis of the text of USERRA, which expressly defines causation to include situations where discriminatory animus is "a motivating factor" in an adverse employment decision. Drawing also on tort and agency principles, Justice Scalia concluded that the cat's paw theory applies in cases where 1) a supervisor acts with discriminatory motive, 2) the discriminatory supervisor intends to cause the adverse action, and 3) the discriminatory act is a "proximate cause" of the adverse action. Scalia rejected the argument that the decision-maker's independent investigation should purge the decision of discriminatory motive, noting that the hostile supervisors' recommendations remained a motivating factor in the decision. He also noted, in contrast to the 7th Circuit, that the HR Manager largely relied on the supervisors' account of the facts underlying the termination, and did not independently determine whether the supervisors' recommendations were justified.
What Employers Can Do: Don't Be A Cat's Paw
While Staub opens the door wider to discrimination cases under the cat's paw theory, the case offers some guidance on what employers can do to minimize exposure from these claims. Most obviously, ultimate decision makers cannot simply rely on recommendations from subordinates, but should conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the facts underlying the employment action. The subtext of Staub suggests the HR Manager's investigation was far from adequate—she merely reviewed the personnel file and consulted another HR employee, but largely relied on the (hostile) supervisor's accusation that Staub had, in fact, violated a workplace rule. The better the independent investigation, especially into the underlying facts, the more likely it is to break the "proximate cause" nexus between coworkers' discriminatory motive and the employer's ultimate decision.
In addition, and perhaps just as obvious, employers should do everything possible to detect and immediately end discriminatory animus brewing among lower level employees. The plaintiff in Staub easily satisfied the other two prongs of the Court's test—that the supervisor acted with a discriminatory motive and intended to cause Staub's firing—because the trial record was full of choice remarks by coworkers disparaging his military duty and complaining about his absences. His supervisors described his Reserve military duty as a "bunch of smoking and joking and a waste of taxpayers' money," and scheduled him additional shifts "to pay back the department for everyone else having to bend over backwards to cover his schedule for the Reserves."
The Reach of the Cat's Paw
Staub makes clear that its reasoning applies to more than just USERRA cases. The opinion expressly noted that Title VII also uses the "a motivating factor" causation standard. What is less clear is whether it applies to just discriminatory supervisors, or also to non-supervisory coworkers. For the moment, however, the Supreme Court has given a green light to cat's paw cases, and employers should assume it could apply broadly and to any discrimination claim.