U.S. Supreme Court Decision Clarifies “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Liability

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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a unanimous decision that an Army reservist who had been terminated from his civilian job as a hospital technician could bring a claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) based on evidence that the individual who terminated him, an unbiased human resources manager, relied in part upon discipline issued by the employee’s two immediate supervisors, who were motivated by hostility toward the employee’s military obligations. This situation, where an employee seeks to hold an employer liable for the animus of a supervisor who is not the ultimate decision-maker, is commonly referred to as a “cat’s paw” case.

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the employee, Vincent Staub, offered evidence showing that his immediate supervisors made derogatory comments about his military service and fabricated allegations that led to disciplinary action against him. Specifically, one supervisor issued Staub a corrective action for violating a rule requiring him to stay in his work area when he was not working with a patient. The corrective action directed Staub to inform one of his supervisors when he had no patients and wanted to leave his work area. Several months later, Staub’s other supervisor informed the Vice President of Human Resources, Linda Buck, that Staub had violated the corrective action directive by leaving his desk without informing anyone. After reviewing Staub’s personnel file, Buck decided to terminate Staub. The termination notice stated that Staub had ignored the directive in the corrective action. Staub challenged his termination through the hospital’s grievance process, claiming that the allegations underlying the corrective action had been fabricated out of hostility toward his military obligations. Buck decided to uphold the termination after discussing the matter with another personnel officer.

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