California Labor &
Employment Law Blog

Mar. 1 2011

Supreme Court Endorses “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Discrimination

Topics: Court Decisions, Discrimination, Harassment & Retaliation

In a unanimous ruling, the United States Supreme Court has endorsed the cat's paw theory for proving employment discrimination. Under the cat's paw theory, a plaintiff can prove discrimination even though there is no evidence the ultimate decisionmaker harbored any discriminatory animus. The theory is based on evidence that a differentemployee (not the ultimate decisionmaker) harbored discriminatory animus and influenced the"innocent" decisionmaker therebycausing the adverse employment action to occur.

In Staub v. Proctor, the plaintiffwas a medical technician for Proctor. He was also a member of the Army Reserves, which requiredhim to attend drill sessions oneweekendper month as well as trainings for two to three weeks peryear. Plaintiff's employment with Proctor was ultimatelyterminated based on a decision by Human Resources.Plaintiff sued fordiscrimination under the USERRA, which prohibits employment discrimination based on military service. Plaintiff didnot have any evidence thatHuman Resources was motivated by adesire to discriminate. The evidence demonstrated that the termination decision itself was not made for discriminatory reasons. However,Plaintiff argued that his immediate supervisors harbored a discriminatoryanimus and that they ultimately triggered the termination because they had issued him a bogus written warning that played a role in the decision to fire him. The lower courts disagreed on whether the evidence was sufficient to entitle the Plaintiff to a trial on his discrimination claim. The Seventh Circuit held that Proctor was entitled to summary judgment because the evidence showed that the ultimate termination decision was made by someone with no discriminatory animus who independently reviewed the facts and that the decision wasn't wholly dependent on the written warning that had been issued by Plaintiff's supervisor.

The United States Supreme Court reversed, holding that the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that the termination decision was proximately caused by the written warning, and that there was some evidence that the written warning was discriminatorily motivated. As a result, the Court held that an employer cannot shield itself from liability simply by demonstrating that the ultimate decisionmaker did not discriminate. If there is evidence that the ultimate decisionmaker was influenced by other supervisors who had such a motive, a plaintiff can prove discrimination based on such a theory.

Although the Staub decision is a USERRA case, its reasoning will apply equally to discrimination cases brought on a cat's paw theory under Title VII and similar federal and state statutes prohibiting employment discrimination. The Staub case will make it more difficult for employers to obtain summary judgment in discrimination cases.

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About the Editor

Robin Largent represents employers, including major food and retail companies, in all types of employment litigation: wrongful termination, retaliation, breach of contract, wage and hour (California Labor Code) and unfair competition. She also regularly counsels and advises California employers on issues of compliance with California and federal employment laws.
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