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Staub v. Proctor Hospital

U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Employers Can Be Liable for "Cat's-Paw" Discrimination

The Court held a hospital liable for discriminating against Mr. Staub, even though the supervisor who fired him had no intent to discriminate, but acted based on false advice from supervisors with biased intent.

Background


Congress intended the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA) to protect soldiers and reservists against discharge, demotion and other adverse employment decisions because of their military status. By ensuring that military service does not interfere with non-military employment, Congress sought to encourage non-career military service. Once an employee shows military status was a motivating factor in his or her employer's adverse conduct, under USERRA, to avoid liability for discrimination, the employer must show it would have taken the adverse action anyway.
 
Vincent Staub, a hospital technician, lost his job after disputes with immediate supervisors over time he took off to fulfill Army Reserve duties. His employer argued that Staub was terminated by a third supervisor who did her own investigation of Staub's record and had no anti-military bias.

Staub argued that the third supervisor considered his immediate boss' bias and unfair comments, that these tainted the supposed "independent" investigation, and that even if other reasons existed for terminating him, his reserve status was "a motivating factor" rendering the hospital liable. A jury agreed, awarding almost $60,000 in damages. But an appeals court ruled that an employer only can be held liable for an innocent decision maker's action if that person was clearly manipulated by a biased employee. If the final decision maker undertook an unbiased, independent investigation, and relied on it to reach a decision, the employer was not responsible.

Staub v. Proctor Hospital
implicates the so-called "cat's-paw" theory, based on a fable about a monkey who persuaded a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire; the monkey got the nuts and the cat got a burned paw. A "cat's-paw" case is one in which an employer's agent (the monkey) allegedly uses another (the cat) to accomplish his or her own (discriminatory) purposes.

AARP's brief, filed by AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys, argued that allowing Staub's employer to evade responsibility would undermine the purposes of USERRA. The Supreme Court agreed: "If a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act [even carried out by an innocent third party] is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA."

What's at Stake


This case, under a relatively obscure law, is important because USERRA tracks other laws affecting older workers. Employers often make decisions involving multiple levels of supervisors and if only the "final" decision maker's intent matters many cases of serious bias would be lost.

Status of the Case


Staub v. Proctor Hospital
returns to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for consideration whether a new jury trial is required with new jury instructions that comport with this decision or if the earlier jury award should be affirmed.

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