US Supreme Court Holds Employers May Be Liable Under "Cat's Paw" Theory

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer can have liability for discrimination based on a “cat’s paw” theory. As the Court explained in its decision Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the theory derives its name from a fable of Aesop. In the fable, a monkey convinces a cat to pull hot chestnuts from a fire (burning its paws in the process) and taking the chestnuts, leaving the cat with nothing for its efforts.

In this case, the plaintiff sued his employer for discrimination in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). The plaintiff alleged that his supervisors discriminated against him due to his role as a military reservist. The plaintiff did not allege that the person who made the final employment decision to terminate his employment (Proctor’s HR manager, aka the cat), but that the decision was influenced by his two directed supervisors who did have animus towards his military service. As the Court explained:

The central difficulty in this case is construing 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 a uniformed service, a motivating factor obviously exists. The problem we confront arises when that official has no discriminatory animus but is influenced by previous company action that is the product of a like animus in someone else.

While this case involved liability under USERRA, the Court noted that USERRA is “very similar” to Title VII which prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Therefore, it is very likely courts will hold that the “cat’s paw” theory of liability will extend into the more prevalent Title VII claims.

Also, as noted by the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, this ruling will likely make it very difficult for employers to dispose of discrimination cases at the summary judgment stage as supervisor’s intent and causation issues almost always involve issues of fact. The likely result is that any cat’s paw theory cases will survive summary judgment and be heard before a jury. The case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, can be downloaded from the Supreme Court’s website here [PDF].

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