"Cat's Paw" Theory: The U.S. Supreme Court Requires Greater Decision-Maker Diligence Before Disciplining Employees

March 7, 2011 By Andrew R. Kaake, Raymond Walther

On March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer can be liable for the discriminatory motives of a lower-level supervisor, even if the individual who made the challenged decision was unaware of those discriminatory motives. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Court examined the applicability and scope of the "cat's paw" theory of liability. Under this theory, an employee who has suffered an adverse employment action (termination, demotion, discipline, etc.) can seek to hold the employer liable for the discriminatory animus of a supervisor, even when the actual decisionmaker had no discriminatory motives. In this scenario, the "cat" is the bigoted supervisor, and the "paw" is the benign decisionmaker. 

The case was decided under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits employment discrimination against military personnel. However, the "cat's paw" theory should now be assumed to apply to other employment discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Whether the theory applies to claims of age discrimination will be a matter of debate, given the Supreme Court's previous ruling that claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act require proof of "but-for" causation.

The plaintiff in Staub was an Army Reservist who was fired after being disciplined by his supervisors. Those supervisors did not, however, make the final decision to terminate the plaintiff's employment. That decision was made by the employer's vice president of human resources after a review of the plaintiff's file and consultation with another manager. Importantly, the plaintiff did not allege that the decisionmaker was motivated by discrimination, but that the supervisors' improper motives were a key factor in the termination decision. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the employer could not be liable since the decisionmaker was not motivated by discrimination and relied on more than just the supervisors' advice. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that discrimination may have been a "motivating factor in the employer's action" because the hostile supervisors' input may have caused the vice president to fire the plaintiff.

According to the Court, "[i]f 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." 

In light of the Staub decision, human resources personnel and managers who are asked to take action upon the recommendations of lower-level management should be advised to take an in-depth look into those recommendations and allegations before taking action. Although the Court offers little guidance concerning how an employer might avoid such "cat's paw" claims, it does make clear that it will not be enough to simply examine an employee's file before taking an adverse action. Managers and supervisors asked to act on the recommendations of others should, at the very least, talk with those making the recommendations, interview the accused employee, and investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding prior discipline.

For assistance with issues raised by this decision or with other employment law matters, please contact any attorney in Frost Brown Todd's Labor and Employment Practice Group.  

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