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Supreme Court decides important “cat’s paw” case

 

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a potentially far-reaching opinion in a “cat’s paw” case, considering when an employer may be held liable for discrimination based on the actions of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.  (The term “cat’s paw” derives from an Aesop’s fable in which a monkey induces a cat by flattery to extract roasting chestnuts from the fire. After the cat has done so, burning its paws in the process, the monkey makes off with the chestnuts and leaves the cat with nothing. The fable compares the cat to princes who, flattered by the king, perform services on the king’s behalf and receive no reward.)

Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician for Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois until 2004, when he was fired.   Staub was a member of the United States Army Reserve, which required him to attend drill one weekend per month and to train full time for two to three weeks a year. Both of  Staub’s immediate supervisors were hostile to his military obligations because they felt it put on a strain on his co-workers and the department.  In January 2004, his supervisor issued Staub a “Corrective Action” disciplinary warning for purportedly violating a rule requiring him to stay in his work area whenever he was not working with a patient. The Corrective Action included a directive requiring Staub to report to his supervisors when he had no patients his work was completed.  According to Staub, the justification for the Corrective Action was false for two reasons: First, the company rule invoked by the supervisor did not exist; and second, even if it did, Staub did not violate it.

Several months later, one of Staub’s supervisors informed the hospital’s vice president of human resources that Staub had left his desk without informing a supervisor, in violation of the January Corrective Action.  Staub denied the allegation, but the VP of HR relied on it and after reviewing Staub’s personnel file, decided to fire him.  Staub sued Proctor under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U. S. C. §4301 et seq, (USERRA), claiming that his discharge was motivated by hostility to his obligations as a military reservist. His contention was that his two supervisors were biased against him, and that their actions influenced the company’s ultimate decision to fire him. A jury found that Staub’s military status was a motivating factor in Proctor’s decision to discharge him, and awarded $57,640 in damages.  

The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that under USERRA, an employer is considered to have engaged in prohibited actions if the person’s membership in the military is a “motivating factor” in the employer’s action, unless the employer can prove that the action would have been taken in the absence of such membership.  According to the Court, the main difficulty in this case was construing the phrase “motivating factor”.   When the individual who makes the ultimate decision is personally acting out of hostility, a motivating factor obviously exists.  The problem in “cat’s paw” cases arises when that official has no discriminatory animus herself but is influenced by a previous action that is the product of a discriminatory animus in someone else.   

After a lengthy analysis, the Court concluded that a nondecisionmaker’s biased report may constitute a causal factor if the ultimate decisionmaker takes it into account without determining that the adverse action was justified apart from the nondecisionmaker’s recommendation.  The 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 decision.   On the other hand, if the decisionmaker conducts an independent investigation that results in a termination for reasons unrelated to the original biased action, then the employer is not liable.

There are several lessons here for employers.  Chief among them is the need for the ultimate decisionmaker in any adverse employment action to conduct enough of an investigation to confirm that lower level supervisors have not tainted the process through their discriminatory animus.  In Staub’s case, the VP of HR did not inquire into whether the original Corrective Action was justified.  Because there was evidence that it was the product of antimilitary discrimination, that tainted the entire process.  Ultimately, an employer needs to be able to point to reasons for the termination that are free of any suggestion of discrimination.


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