The U.S. Supreme Court decided a case this month that we previewed in our October 2010 Employment Law Newsletter, regarding the application of the "Cat's Paw" theory to employment discrimination cases. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct. 1186 (2011), the Court considered "the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision." The Supreme Court held that the employer is liable for discrimination if the biased individual: (1) took steps that proximately caused the ultimate adverse action; and (2) intended that result. Although this case involved alleged discrimination in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq. ("USERRA"), the reasoning is also likely to apply to cases involving other types of discrimination claims.

The Facts

Plaintiff Vincent Staub worked for defendant Proctor Hospital as an angiography technician. He was also an army reservist, required to attend army training one weekend each month and two to three weeks each year. According to Staub, his immediate supervisor and his supervisor's supervisor "were hostile to [his] military obligations." One of his supervisors allegedly commented, for instance, that Staub's "military duty had been a strain on [the] department" and asked another employee "to help her 'get rid of him.'"

In 2004, one of Staub's supervisors issued him a "Corrective Action" warning for leaving his work area in violation of a company rule. Staub disputed the existence of such a rule and, in any event, denied violating it. Nonetheless, the Corrective Action required Staub to notify his supervisors when leaving his work area in the future. A few months later, one of his supervisors informed Proctor's vice president of human resources, Linda Buck, that Staub had left his work area without notifying a supervisor in violation of the Corrective Action. Relying upon this information, Buck reviewed Staub's personnel file and decided to terminate his employment.  

Staub challenged the termination pursuant to Proctor's grievance process. After a brief investigation, Buck upheld her decision.

Staub filed a lawsuit against Proctor asserting a claim of discrimination under USERRA. He alleged "that his discharge was motivated by hostility to his obligations as a military reservist." Staub contended that Buck did not harbor any hostility toward him, but that his supervisors did and "that their actions influenced Buck's ultimate employment decision."

USERRA

USERRA states:

"A person who is a member of ... or has an obligation to perform service in a uniformed service shall not be denied initial employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership, ... or obligation."

The law further states:

"An employer shall be considered to have engaged in actions prohibited ... under [the above subsection], if the person's membership ... is a motivating factor in the employer's action, unless the employer can prove that the action would have been taken in the absence of such membership."

The District Court

Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Staub and awarded him $56,640 in damages. Proctor appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed.

The Seventh Circuit

The Seventh Circuit characterized this as a "cat's paw" case (a phrase derived from a fable entitled "The Monkey and the Cat"), meaning that Staub "sought to hold his employer liable for the animus of a supervisor who was not charged with making the ultimate employment decision." According to the Seventh Circuit, a plaintiff could only prevail under this type of theory by demonstrating that the biased individual "exercised such 'singular influence' over the decisionmaker that the decision to terminate was the product of 'blind reliance.'"

The Seventh Circuit noted that Buck had, among other things, reviewed Staub's personnel file before deciding to terminate his employment. Because Buck had not been "wholly dependent" on information she received solely from Staub's biased supervisors, the Court concluded that the cat's paw theory did not apply and Proctor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Staub's petition for a writ of certiorari and reversed the judgment of the Seventh Circuit.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court explained that an employer violates USERRA if antimilitary animus is a "motivating factor" in an adverse employment decision. According to the Court, a plaintiff can satisfy this requirement by showing that an individual acting with discriminatory animus intended the adverse action that ultimately occurred, as long as there is "some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged."

The Court explained 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" (emphasis in original). The Court noted that the biased act may constitute the proximate cause of the ultimate employment action even if the decisionmaker subsequently exercises some independent judgment.

Here, according to the Court, a reasonable jury could have found Proctor liable under USERRA, because: (1) Staub's supervisors were acting within the scope of their employment; (2) "they took the actions that allegedly caused Buck to fire Staub"; (3) "there was evidence that [the supervisors'] actions were motivated by hostility toward Staub's military obligations"; (4) "[t]here was ... evidence that [the supervisors'] actions were causal factors underlying Buck's decision to fire Staub"; and (5) "there was evidence that both [supervisors] had the specific intent to cause Staub to be terminated."

The Court remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit to determine whether to reinstate the jury verdict or order a new trial with modified jury instructions consistent with its decision.

  • Bottom Line

Employers should be aware that courts will likely apply the Supreme Court's reasoning in Staub to cases arising under anti-discrimination laws other than USERRA. Indeed, the Supreme Court observed that USERRA "is very similar to Title VII," which bars employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.  

Employers should also recognize that, in Staub, the employer failed to seriously investigate the plaintiff's allegations that the supervisors upon whose recommendations it based its termination decision were motivated by antimilitary bias. In order to limit the risk of potential "cat's paw" liability - or liability under another theory - employers should always thoroughly investigate allegations of discrimination.  

Click here for a link to the Staub decision.