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Supreme Court Recognizes "Catspaw" Theory for Employment Discrimination Claims

    Client Alerts
  • March 04, 2011

In order to prevail in an employment discrimination or retaliation claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the adverse decision made by the employer was motivated by a discriminatory or retaliatory animus. What happens when the actual decision maker is not accused of any such bias, but may have been influenced by others seeking to harm the plaintiff for illegal reasons?

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that this "catspaw" theory constitutes a violation of federal employment laws. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the plaintiff was a member of the Army Reserves. He alleged that his immediate supervisor and her boss were hostile to his missing time from work for military obligations. Staub contended that these managers influenced the human resource manager's decision to terminate him for performance reasons. Although the plaintiff did not claim that the HR manager was hostile to his military obligations, he alleged that the other managers' influence over the decision constituted illegal discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that USERRA only applies to the motivation of the manager who makes the de facto decision to terminate the plaintiff. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, finding the employer liable whenever anti-military bias is a proximate cause of the adverse action taken against the protected employee. The decision maker's exercise of judgment does not prevent the earlier managers' actions from being a proximate cause of the harm.

The Court said that reaching the opposite conclusion would create a situation where employers could avoid liability under USERRA by isolating a personnel officer and vesting him or her with the ability to make the adverse employment decision after reviewing file documents. The Supreme Court left open the possibility that an independent investigation of the employee's discrimination claims could rebut allegations of discriminatory bias, but this investigation will not act as an absolute bar to the employee's claims being tried and heard by a jury.

This decision should also apply to federal civil rights laws such as Title VII and the ADA. Employers should be aware that the use of an independent manager to review and make employment decisions will not insulate them from later discrimination or retaliation claims.