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Supreme Court Sets Standard in Cat’s Paw Discrimination Case

Labor & Employment Alert Jeffrey S. Piell

In the employment law context, a "cat's paw" claim of discrimination asserts that an unbiased decision maker is influenced by a co-worker with bias to make an adverse employment decision against an employee. Over time, courts have applied varying standards when determining whether the biased influence on the decision maker, and the decision, gives rise to employer liability. On March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court addressed a cat's paw claim in a military discrimination case and ruled that an employer can be held liable if the bias was a "proximate cause" of the employment action, even if the decision maker harbored no bias of her own. Staub v. Proctor Hospital, U.S. No. 09-400.

Army reservist Vincent Staub alleged that his employer violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA") when he was fired from his civilian job as a hospital technician. He presented evidence at trial that his direct supervisors were openly hostile to his military obligations: They made anti-military comments, asked co-workers to help "get rid" of Staub, scheduled Staub extra shifts to "pay back" co-workers who had to cover his absences, and issued him a disciplinary warning for purportedly violating a company rule requiring him to stay in his work area whenever he was not working with a patient. When Staub next left his desk without warning a supervisor, he was reported to Human Resources. Relying in part on the biased supervisor's accusation, the VP of Human Resources fired him. The jury rendered a verdict for Staub.

The verdict was overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which ruled that Staub had to prove that his immediate supervisors had a "singular influence" on the unbiased decision maker in order to establish a cat's paw claim. That is, the decision was the product of "blind reliance" on the biased supervisors' input.

By a vote of 8-0 (Justice Kagan took no part), the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit and reinstated Staub's USERRA claim. Starting with the statute, the Court observed that "[a]n employer shall be considered to have engaged in [discriminatory] action prohibited . . . under [USERRA] if the person's membership [in the uniformed services] 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 Court set out to construe the phrase "motivating factor in the employer's action." When the company official who makes the decision to take an adverse employment action is personally acting out of hostility to the employee's membership in or obligation to uniformed service, a motivating factor obviously exists. The problem confronted in Staub arises when that official has no discriminatory animus but is influenced by previous company action that is the product of such an animus in someone else.

The Court ruled that "if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if the act is a proximate cause of the employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA." There can be multiple proximate causes for an employment action, and each proximate cause only requires some direct relation between the injury and the biased conduct. Because Staub's supervisors were motivated by hostility to his military obligations, had expressed a desire to "get rid of" Staub, and their disciplinary action was a causal factor underlying HR's decision to fire Staub, the Court held that a reasonable jury could rule in favor of Staub on his bias claim.

In so ruling, the Court rejected the employer's argument that the decision maker's independent action - and/or independent investigation (and rejection) of the employee's allegation of bias - ought to negate the effect of prior discrimination. The employer will not be liable under USERRA, the Court observed, only if the employer can show that its investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor's original biased actions. However, a supervisor's biased report may remain a causal factor if the independent investigation takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was, apart from the supervisor's recommendation, entirely justified.

Application to Other Discrimination Claims

While this decision was limited to Staub's USERRA claim, the Court's analysis will likely apply to discrimination claims filed under Title VII as the laws have similar "motivating factor" language, and the Court referenced the textual similarities in its decision. Employees will surely cite Staub as they seek to extend the cat's paw theory to other anti-discrimination statutes (e.g., ADEA, ADA).

Practical Implication

The Staub decision will make it more difficult for employers to defeat a cat's paw claim based on the bias of someone other than the decision maker. Still, complaining employees must demonstrate actual animus, intent by the biased employee to cause an adverse employment action, and an adverse action based on that animus. Most employees will be unable to establish the biased statements, intent and actions that Staub proved at his trial.

The Supreme Court left unclear the circumstances under which an investigation may insulate an employer from a cat's paw claim. These standards will be decided by the lower courts for years to come. In the meantime, employers should take care to fully, and independently, investigate the underlying bases for any disciplinary action (or any other employment decision) to ensure that such decisions are not based on impermissible factors or bias. Thorough and independent investigations not only aid employers in determining the truth; they may reduce the likelihood of employee complaints when the employee perceives the employer as trying to be fair and impact the perception of agents or courts who decide employee complaints.

If you have any questions about the Supreme Court's decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital or cat's paw claims and defenses in general, please contact Jeffrey Piell at (312) 715-5216 / or your Quarles & Brady attorney.