The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered the circumstances when an employer may be liable for employment discrimination based on the unlawful, discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, an ultimate employment decision. This theory is commonly referred to as the Cat’s Paw theory derived from fable about the monkey who convinces the cat to reach into the fire to pull out the roasting chestnuts. The cat gets burned while the monkey makes off with the chestnuts. In discrimination cases, the Cat’s Paw theory refers to a situation where a supervisor with a discriminatory animus who influences, but does not make, the adverse employment decision.
The facts of Staub are straight forward. In Staub, the employee complained that several of his direct supervisor were hostile to his reserve military service that periodically required him to miss work. The employee complained that this hostile supervisors wrote him up on several occasions that were motivated by his military service. Specially, Staub’s direct supevisor issued him a corrective action for violating a company rule requiring him to stay in his work area when he was not working with a patient. Several months later, a co-worker complained that Staub’s frequent availablility. On another occasion, the hostile supervisor reported that Staub had left his workstation without permission in violation of the earlier corrective action. A hospital executive, whom had no discriminatory animus, reviewed Staub’s file and made the decision to terminate his employment; at least in part on information contained in the file that was initiated by Staub’s direct supervisors (and whom allegedly had discriminatory intent). Staub appealed his termination through the hospital’s grievance procedure but the decision stood. Staub won at trial, but on appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal reversed holding that since there was no evidence that the ultimate decisionmaker had a discriminatory animus, Staub could not hold the hospital liable for the discriminatory animus of a supervisor who was not the ulimate decisionmaker.
The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals. As the Court stated, "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." However, "the employer is at fault [when] one of its agents committed an action based on discriminatory animus that was intended to cause, and did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision." The core holding of the opinion is that "if a supervisor performs an act motivated by [discriminatory] 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 [the law]."
Staub substantially expands the scope of situations where employers can be held liable for discrimination based on the acts of nondecisionmaker supervisors. You can access a full copy of Staub v. Proctor Hospital here.
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