Friday, April 1, 2011

Legal Alert: Supreme Court Clarifies Cat's Paw Liability in Discrimination Claims

REPRINTED FROM: Ford & Harrison Attorneys: Shane Muñoz, a partner in our Tampa office, at
The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the standards under which an
employer can be liable for discrimination under the so-called "cat's paw"[1]
theory of liability in a discrimination claim. See Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No.
09-400 (March 1, 2011). The Court held that if a supervisor performs an act
motivated by unlawful animus and intends to cause an adverse employment
action, the employer is liable if the supervisor's act is a proximate cause of
the adverse decision even if the decision maker did not share the
supervisor's animus. The decision was issued in a case brought under the
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA),
but its holding will likely be applied in cases under Title VII and other
discrimination statutes.
The issue in Staub was whether an employer is liable for unlawful
discrimination when a decision maker relies in part on information tainted by
the discriminatory animus of a lower level supervisor, and in part on the
decision maker's independent investigation. Staub's immediate supervisor
and second level supervisor both harbored unlawful animus based on
Staub's military service and falsely accused him of performance deficiencies.
The decision maker was at a higher level than those two supervisors. The
decision maker investigated the alleged performance deficiencies, rejected
Staub's objection that the supervisors' accusations were motivated by
unlawful animus, and also considered Staub's personnel file and other
information. The decision maker decided to fire Staub and he sued, alleging
a violation of USERRA.
A jury ruled in favor of Staub, and Proctor appealed. The United States
Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, because the decision
maker did not depend wholly on the tainted accusations in making the
decision to fire Staub. According to the Seventh Circuit, an employer is not
liable in a cat's paw case unless the non-decision maker exerted "such
'singular influence' over the decision maker that the decision . . . was the
product of 'blind reliance.'"
The Supreme Court rejected the Seventh Circuit's approach. The Court first
pointed out that to establish liability under USERRA, Staub was required to
prove that his military status was "a motivating factor" in the adverse action,
and that there can be multiple motivating factors. The Court then analyzed
the lower level supervisors' actions, noting that the jury had found that they
made their false accusations because of unlawful animus, and finding that
they intended that their accusations would result in adverse action against
Staub. The Court further found that Proctor had effectively delegated the fact
finding portion of the decision maker's investigation to the biased supervisors
and that the false accusations were one factor in the decision to terminate.
Because the false accusations were the product of unlawful animus and
were a motivating factor in the discharge decision, they were a proximate
cause of the discharge and Proctor could be liable, even though other
factors might be additional proximate causes.
Nonetheless, the Court agreed that Proctor could avoid liability if it could
establish that the decision maker's investigation resulted in the discharge for
reasons unrelated to the supervisors' original biased action. While this
affirmative defense can be a complete defense to liability under some
discrimination statutes including USERRA, under other discrimination
statutes, including Title VII, it would be only a partial defense.
Employers' Bottom Line
The Court's decision potentially expands the scope of liability under the
"cat's paw" theory. Thus, it is more important than ever for employers to
conduct thorough and independent investigations of discrimination
allegations and properly document those investigations. It is also important
to ensure that adverse employment actions are taken for legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reasons, which are factually supported and appropriately
If you have any questions regarding this decision, please contact the Ford &
Harrison attorney with whom you usually work or the author of this Alert,
Shane Muñoz, a partner in our Tampa office, at
[1] The term "cat's paw" is derived from a 17th century fable in which a
manipulative monkey convinces an unsuspecting cat to retrieve chestnuts
from a fire. The cat burns its paw getting the chestnuts, while the monkey
devours them one by one. In discrimination cases, courts have used this
term to describe the imposition of liability on an employer for the
discriminatory animus of a non-decision maker where that person so
influenced the decision maker that the decision maker was nothing more
than a puppet or "cat's paw" for the biased non-decision maker.

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