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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For over 25 years, CDF has distinguished itself as one of the top employment, labor and immigration firms in California, representing employers in single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits and advising employers on related legal compliance and risk avoidance. We cover the state, with five locations from Sacramento to San Diego.

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About the Editor

Robin Largent has a regular presence in California state and federal courts and has been lead defense counsel and appellate counsel for large and small California employers in litigation (and arbitration) ranging from individual discrimination and harassment claims to complex wage and hour representative and class actions. She also leads the firm’s appellate practice, having substantial experience and success handling appeals, writ petitions, and amicus briefs in both state and federal court on issues such as class certification (particularly in the wage and hour arena), manageability and due process concerns associated with class action trials, exempt/non-exempt misclassification issues, meal and rest break compliance, trade secret/unfair competition matters, and the scope of federal court jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act.
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