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Bar News - April 15, 2011


Labor & Employment Law: High Court Upholds "Catís Paw" Liability against Employers

By:


Stephen A. Duggan
In a decision generally viewed as a victory for employees, the US Supreme Court handed down the unanimous decision, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, recognizing the "catís paw" theory of employer liability in discrimination cases. The Court determined that an employer may be liable, based on the discriminatory intent of a supervisor who influenced, but did not make, an adverse employment action.

In Staub, the plaintiff brought his case under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against members of the uniformed services. The decision resolved a split in the circuit courts and held that "if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti-military animus intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate adverse employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA."

The "catís paw" theory of liability gets its name from the 17th century fable by Jean de la Fontaine. In the fable, a cat is persuaded by a monkey to steal chestnuts from a fire. The cat complies and burns his paws while the monkey eats all of the chestnuts. In the employment context, the monkey is the biased supervisor and uses the cat (or the non-discriminating decision-maker) to advance his or her goal that an adverse employment action occur.

Case Background

Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician for Proctor Hospital and served as a member of the US Army Reserve, a position that required him to attend training one weekend per month and full-time for two-to-three weeks per year. According to Staub, two of his supervisors were openly hostile to his military obligations and they made several comments regarding the "strain" that Staubís military obligations put on the department, and voiced their opinion that reservist training was a waste of taxpayersí money.

Staubís supervisors issued him a disciplinary warning for violating a company rule based on a non-existent company rule. A few months later, one of his supervisors reported the violation to the vice-president of human resources. The human resources vice-president terminated Staub, based on the supervisorís report that Staub violated a company rule and Staubís personnel file.

Staub sued Proctor Hospital under USERRA. Finding that the supervisorsí hostility to his military obligations motivated Staubís discharge, the jury awarded $57,640 in damages. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that, under that Circuitís precedent, a "catís paw" case could not succeed unless the hostile non-decision-maker exercised such a "singular influence" over the decision-maker that the termination was based on "blind reliance." The Circuit Court found that the human resources official relied on more than just the biased supervisorís advice in arriving at the termination decision.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuitís decision. Instead of focusing on the Circuit Courtís "singular influence" standard, the Supreme Court relied on the statutory language of "motivating factor in the employerís action" found in USERRA. The Court rejected the hospitalís position because the record supported that Staubís supervisors were motivated by hostility toward his military obligations, and intentionally influenced human resources that Staub had violated the terms of a prior disciplinary warning. As a result, the biased supervisorsí actions were causal factors in the termination decision.

The Supreme Court noted that the employer could not insulate itself from liability by relying on an independent investigation by human resources because they ultimately relied on the discriminatory input from the supervisors in deciding to fire Staub. Under the Courtís interpretation of "catís paw" liability, an "employer is at fault because one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment action."

Practical Implications of the Courtís Decision

For employees, although the decision concerned a USERRA claim, this decision may be applied to discrimination claims brought under Title VII and a variety of anti-discrimination statutes. The Court expressly noted that USERRA is similar to Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Because the "motivating factor" language of USERRA is similar to many other federal employment laws, the ruling will likely be applied more broadly.

For employers, this decision creates a greater degree of uncertainty with disciplinary actions and termination decisions. Employers will no longer be able to rely on the ultimate decision-makers independent investigation to excuse the discriminatory animus of a supervisor unless the employer can demonstrate reasons for the termination unrelated to the supervisorís original biased action.

The Courtís ruling left unresolved several important issues such as whether or not an employeeís failure to use an internal complaint process provides the employer with an affirmative defense. Also, the Court did not address whether an employer is liable if the biased employee was a low-level employee. It is these undecided issues that will likely be developed through litigation in the lower courts.

Stephen A. Duggan is an attorney at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey in Concord. He can be reached at 603-224-1988 or sduggan@nhlawoffice.com.

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