Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited "Cat's Paw Theory" decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital. The question: When is an employer liable for the unlawful intent of supervisors who cause or influence – but don't actually make – an employment decision? What Do Cats and Their Paws Have to do with Employment Law? For those of you not completely up-to-speed on your 17th Century literature, the "cat's paw" theory is based on a story by Jean de La Fontaine entitled The Monkey and the Cat. In that story, a scheming monkey convinced a cat to steal nuts from a fire. The cat ended up with a burned paw and the monkey with a full stomach. In the employment law arena, the Cat's Paw Theory is used by a plaintiff who attempts to hold an employer liable by imputing the unlawful intent of a non-decisionmaker to an "innocent" decisionmaker. The Lower Court's Ruling The Seventh Circuit ruled that the Cat's Paw Theory requires the non-decisionmaker to possess "singular influence" over a decisionmaker who acts with "blind reliance." The Supremes' Reversal In a victory for employees, the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's decision and endorsed the Cat's Paw Theory. The Court ruled that if a supervisor is motivated by "discriminatory animus" that is both (1) intended to cause and (2) a "proximate cause" of an adverse employment action, the employer is liable. The only way out for an employer is if it (1) undertakes an independent investigation and (2) the investigation concludes that the decision was "entirely justified apart from the supervisor's input." Does This Ruling Apply to All Discrimination Cases? Staub was a USERRA case related to servicemember rights. However, the Court stressed that USERRA's "motivating factor" causation test is "very similar to Title VII." That means that the case will probably apply to most discrimination cases (with the exception of ADEA cases which apply a "but for" causation test). What Does This Mean for Employers? Staub is a fairly big victory for employees. Employers now have almost no protection against the discriminatory motives of supervisors who cause an adverse employment action but aren't involved in the actual decision-making process. The case is also likely to lead to inreased litigation, given that it is (1) decidedly pro-employee and (2) relies on fact-intensive lawyerly tests like "discriminatory animus" and "proximate cause" that will be difficult for employers to win at the summary judgment stage.
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