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


On March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court again increased employers' exposure to employment discrimination claims. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. ___ (2011) (pdf), the unanimous Court concluded that employers may be held liable for unlawful discrimination if a lower level supervisor influences an adverse employment decision, even if the decision is ultimately made by an independent manager. The theory that an employer may be liable when it relies on facts supplied by a biased supervisor when making an adverse employment decision is known as the "cat's paw" theory.

Staub claimed that Proctor Hospital's Human Resources (HR) Manager relied on facts supplied by Staub's supervisors, who were acting with anti-military animus in violation of the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), when the HR Manager terminated him. Staub admitted that the HR Manager did not have anti-military animus, but claimed that the facts provided by his supervisors were false, and that his supervisors provided the false facts because the supervisors wanted him fired because of his military Reserve obligations.

The focus of the Court's decision was whether the supervisors' anti-military animus was "a motivating factor in the employer's action," in violation of the USERRA. Importantly, and unfortunately for employers, the Court pointed out that the "motivating factor" language from the USERRA is also found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, it is clear that the "cat's paw" theory is viable under Title VII.

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