Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. Follows U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling in “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Discrimination

March 21, 2011
SPRINGFIELD and WORCESTER, MA / WATERBURY, CT – Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England specializing in the practice of labor relations and employment law exclusively for management, is closely following a recent United States Supreme Court ruling. The ruling, in which the Court found merit in a theory of discrimination known as “cat’s paw,” is based on a term from an Aesop fable. In the famous fable, a monkey induces a cat to pull roasting chestnuts from a fire by flattering the cat. After the cat retrieves the hot chestnuts, the monkey grabs them and runs off, leaving the cat to nurse its burned paws. Cat’s paw cases are those cases where an employer is held liable for discriminatory animus held by a supervisor even where the supervisor did not make the ultimate employment decision.

The fable is applied to discrimination cases where the person who made the decision to terminate or discipline an employee, such as the HR director or senior manager, did not do so based on any discriminatory reason, but the supervisor who recommended the adverse did so for discriminatory reasons. Basically, like the monkey, the supervisor has convinced the senior member of management to do his dirty work. In those circumstances, even though there might not be any proof that the senior member of management harbors any discriminatory animus towards the employee, the employer may nonetheless be held liable if the discriminatory attitude of the supervisor can be imputed to the unbiased manager.

The Supreme Court’s ruling attempts to clarify the circumstances under which a cat’s paw analysis will result in a finding of discrimination. The case was Staub v. Proctor Hospital and involved a member of the Army Reserves who was fired by the Hospital, allegedly because his supervisors objected to absences related to his military service. At trial, the jury found that the employee’s military status was a motivating factor in the Hospital’s decision to terminate his employment, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (USERRA) reversed the trial court decision.

Under established law in the Seventh Circuit, a “cat’s paw” case could not succeed unless there was evidence that the supervisor exercised “singular influence” over the decision maker, with the result that the decision to terminate could be considered the result of “blind reliance.” The employee appealed the Seventh Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, which issued a decision on March 1, 2011.

The Court rejected the hospital’s argument that an employer should be able to avoid a charge of discrimination by isolating the decision maker from the employee’s supervisor. The Court concluded that where the decision maker bases her decision on a review of the employee’s personnel file and that file contains acts and recommendations of the employee’s supervisor that were designed and intended to produce the ultimate result, it is appropriate to hold the company responsible for discrimination if acts and recommendations by a discriminatory supervisor are the immediate and direct cause of the ultimate adverse action.

The Court’s decision is expressly limited to USERRA cases, where the burden of proof is slightly different than in traditional discrimination cases. Under USERRA, it is the employer’s burden to prove that the adverse action would have taken place even if the employee were not a member of the military. Under traditional employment discrimination law, the employer’s burden is to merely articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the claimed action, and it is then the employee’s burden to show that that decision is a pretext for illegal discrimination. Nonetheless, the Court’s decision cites to cases that were brought under Title VII, the federal law against discrimination based on membership in protected classes, and the logic of the Court’s ruling might mean that an employee who is trying to demonstrate pretext will have an easier time doing so if he can show evidence that his supervisors were motivated by discriminatory animus, especially where the ultimate decision maker relied heavily upon the supervisor’s actions.

If you have questions about this decision, contact any of the attorneys at Skoler Abbott & Presser, P.C., at (413) 737-4753.

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