Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Staub v. Proctor Hospital to address the question of when an employer may be held liable in “cat’s paw” situations, where an employee with unlawful intent influences a decisionmaker but is not involved in making the ultimate employment decision.
In this case the employee, Vincent Staub, was a member of the Army Reserves. He was required to attend occasional weekend training as well as a two-week training program during the summer. Reservists, of course, are protected from discrimination by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”). The department’s second in command, Janice Mulally, resented the fact that Staub was in the Reserves. She made numerous anti-Reserves comments and purposely scheduled him on weekends when he had training. In the weeks leading up to his termination, Staub was disciplined for allegedly insubordinate behavior. The veracity of the allegations against him were suspect, coming largely from Mulally, who was known to dislike Staub. Staub was terminated by the Vice President of Human Resources after he allegedly engaged again in similar insubordinate behavior. The parties agree that the decisionmaker had no unlawful animus whatsoever. She testified that her decision was based on both the more recent allegations of insubordination, as well as Staub’s well-documented history of being difficult to work with.
At trial, Staub sought to attribute Mulally’s animus to the decisionmaker, arguing that the decision would not have been made but for Mulally’s unlawful animus. The jury returned a verdict in Staub’s favor. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed that decision, noting that in order to successfully assert a cat’s paw theory, the discriminatory animus of the non-decisionmaker can only be attributed to the decisionmaker where the non-decisionmaker had “singular influence” over the decisionmaker. The Court held that while the decisionmaker was clearly influenced by Mulally, there was no evidence of “blind reliance,” and the cat’s paw theory should never have gone before the jury. The Court pointed to undisputed evidence that the decisionmaker took into account other aspects of Staub’s employment unrelated to the alleged acts reported by Mulally, including his reputation for being difficult to work with, and his history of employment issues dating back to the beginning of his employment–before Mulally became second in command of the department.
While not completely eviscerating the cat’s paw doctrine, the Seventh Circuit in Staub enunciated a very narrow, pro-employer, interpretation of the “singular influence” requirement. What the Supreme Court may do is anybody’s guess, but it seems likely that given the Court’s current makeup it will affirm the Seventh Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the cat’s paw doctrine. A copy of the Seventh Circuit opinion can be found here.