Supreme Court Advances Cat’s Paw Theory

Last week, the Supreme Court held that if a supervisor does something for a discriminatory reason, and the supervisor also intends to cause an adverse employment action, which does, in fact, take place, then the employer may be liable under a “cat’s paw” theory of liability, even if the supervisor was not responsible for the decision to terminate the employee. Staub v. Proctor Hosp. (2011).

It is well established that an employer can be liable for civil rights violations where a supervisor with discriminatory intent induces a supervisor who does not have discriminatory intent to take action against an employee.
But in Staub, two supervisors wished to terminate Vincent Staub because of his military service, in direct violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). To do this, they disciplined him for spurious rules infractions and placed written warnings in his personnel file.

Later, when one of Staub’s coworkers made a legitimate complaint against him, Proctor’s vice president of human resources, Linda Buck, terminated Staub based on the complaint and the trumped-up claims placed in his file by his two supervisors. Buck was unaware that the accusations in Staub’s personnel file were less than credible.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court overruled the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which had held that the cat’s paw theory is only valid where the terminating supervisor—in this case, Buck—relies entirely on the advice of the discriminating supervisors in making the decision to terminate.

“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,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.