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Supreme Court Holds That "Cat's Paw" Can Create Liability for Employers

Publisher: Day Pitney Alert
March 4, 2011
Day Pitney Author(s) Eric L. Sussman

On March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 1900 (Mar. 1, 2011), that an employer can be held liable for discrimination where an adverse employment decision is influenced by a supervisor's discriminatory intent, even where the ultimate decision maker had no discriminatory animus. In Staub, the plaintiff sued his former employer under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 ("USERRA"), claiming that the human resources executive who fired him was merely the "cat's paw" of his direct supervisors, who had openly expressed anti-military sentiment. The Court found that if an action by a biased supervisor is the proximate cause of an employee's termination, then the employer can be held liable for discrimination, even if the ultimate decision maker had no discriminatory intent and was unaware of the supervisor's bias.

Although the Court allowed for the possibility that an employer could escape liability by conducting an independent investigation, it provided little guidance to employers regarding the circumstances under which such an investigation could insulate them. In this regard, the Court stated that "if the employer's investigation results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor's original biased action ... then the employer will not be liable. But the 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." Thus, the Court seemed to suggest that a jury can consider the actions and statements of an allegedly biased supervisor unless the employer can demonstrate that such supervisor played no role and had no input regarding the adverse employment action.

The rationale underlying the Supreme Court's decision presumably applies equally to discrimination claims brought under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal statutes prohibiting employment discrimination. The decision highlights the importance of training all supervisors with respect to their equal employment opportunity/non-discrimination obligations. It illustrates that biased or discriminatory input from even one supervisor can taint a disciplinary/termination process involving multiple supervisors and layers of review.