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

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct. 1186 (2011), (slip opinion here), the Supreme Court clarified the circumstances – under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. 4311 – under which an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision (the so-called “cat’s paw” scenario).

In sum, the Court rejected the notion that the employer can avoid liability by isolating the decisionmaker from the employee’s supervisors or by conducting an “independent investigation”, and held 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.”  (Emphasis in original.)

Although the Court rendered the decision in the context of “antimilitary animus” and liability under USERRA, the principles it articulated will likely creep into Title VII jurisprudence, in light of the Court’s observation that USERRA (and in particular its “motivating factor” standard) is “very similar to Title VII”.