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March 7, 2011

Supreme Court Approves of "Cat's Paw" Theory of Liability

In the fable known as “The Monkey and the Cat,” a monkey induces a cat to snatch roasting chestnuts from a fire.  After the cat has grabbed the chestnuts, burning its paws in the process, the monkey runs off with the chestnuts.  From this fable, the term “cat’s paw” has come to mean an unwitting tool used by another. 

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, ___ S. Ct. ___, 2011 WL 691244 (March 1, 2011), the United States Supreme Court considered the viability of the “cat’s paw” theory of employment discrimination.  In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an employer may be liable for discrimination even if the individual who made the decision to take an adverse employment action was not biased, where underlying actions by other supervisors were the result of bias.  Reviewing a decision arising under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”), the Court upheld the viability of the “cat’s paw” theory.  Although the Court’s decision was limited to USERRA, it is expected that its reasoning will also be applied to Title VII.  This is because, as the Court observed, the antidiscrimination provisions of USERRA are “very similar to Title VII.”
Vincent Staub, an Army Reservist, alleged that he was terminated because his direct supervisors harbored anti-military bias against him, in violation of USERRA.  The Hospital argued that the individual who terminated Mr. Staub, the Vice President of Human Resources, harbored no discriminatory animus.  In response, Staub argued that the Human Resources representative was unduly influenced by his direct supervisors’ discriminatory animus.  Plaintiff prevailed at trial and was awarded damages, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

Disagreeing with the Seventh Circuit’s decision, the Court ruled that “if a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary 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 USERRA.”  This is the case even if the individual who commits the adverse employment action is not biased. 

Proctor Hospital also argued that the human resources representative had made her own investigation prior to terminating Staub’s employment, which would negate the effect of any discriminatory animus.  The Court rejected “such a hard and fast rule,” stating that if an 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, if the employer still considers a supervisor’s “biased report” in the investigation, the employer may still be liable.   In this particular case, the Court found it significant that the termination notice relied upon the directive of the biased supervisors.  Thus, it could not be said that the discriminatory actions taken by Staub’s supervisors were unrelated to his ultimate discharge. 

The Supreme Court’s opinion provides guidance on steps that employers should take to avoid liability.  Specifically, under the “cat’s paw” theory, employers should ensure that the ultimate decisionmaker does not merely “rubber stamp” adverse employment actions brought forth by a supervisor, especially when considering serious actions such as termination of employment.  According to the Supreme Court, an employer may avoid liability when a decisionmaker conducts a separate investigation so that an adverse employment decision is not based upon the supervisor’s recommendation.  As a separate investigation is advisable, the decision also serves as a reminder of the need to fully document all discipline when initially issued.  Without accurate and detailed documentation, the decisionmaker will be unable to fully review the disciplinary process.  

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We are available to discuss the Staub decision and the “cat’s paw” theory of liability.  If you should have any questions regarding this case, please contact us.