Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), an aggrieved plaintiff must demonstrate that the individual who made an adverse employment decision did so with the intent of discriminating against him due to military service. Last week, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to evade this requirement through use of the “Cat’s Paw” theory.
Under this argument, the employer is liable for a USERRA violation even where the decision maker admittedly had no anti-military bias, if that decision maker was subject to the singular influence of another employee who displayed such bias. In other words, the plaintiff can claim a USERRA violation where an employee manipulates a supervisor into firing the plaintiff.
In this case, the plaintiff was an Army reservist who worked as a hospital technician. He claimed that his two direct supervisors openly challenged his entitlement to leave for reservist duties, and stated their belief that the military service was an unnecessary waste and strain on the hospital. After a long string of disciplinary write-ups, the plaintiff was eventually fired for not informing his supervisor that he was going on a break.
In his USERRA complaint, the plaintiff admitted that he was actually terminated by a human resource manager who did not share his supervisors’ bias against his military service. However, he claimed that the HR manager was maneuvered and influenced into making the termination decision by the two supervisors.
The Seventh Circuit rejected application of the Cat’s Paw theory in this case, reversing the lower court’s decision. While recognizing the availability of this argument in employment discrimination cases, the court concluded that it can only be applied on very narrow grounds. In addition to demonstrating “singular influence” on the decision maker, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the decision maker did not conduct any independent investigation that could justify the decision.
Applying this test to the facts of this case, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the HR manager independently reviewed the plaintiff’s work history and the facts behind this disciplinary incident. The court stated that in most cases, the judge and not the jury should make this initial determination. In order to prevail on a Cat’s Paw theory, the plaintiff needs to show essentially blind obedience by the decision maker to the instructions of another party.