The cat’s out of the bag. Well, maybe not the whole cat, but at least its paw. Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Staub v. Proctor Hospital (09-400). In doing so, the Court agreed to decide an employer’s legal duty under the “Cat’s Paw” theory. The Question Presented is:
In what circumstances may an employer be held liable based on the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influenced but did not make the ultimate employment decision?
Staub comes to the Supreme Court from a Seventh Circuit opinion (.pdf) addressing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). While USERRA protects military service members from discrimination in civilian jobs, the Supreme Court opinion will likely prove applicable to a host of other employment discrimination statutes such as Title VII.
The name, “Cat’s Paw,” comes from 17th century poet Jean de La Fontaine’s fable, “The Monkey and the Cat.” In the story, a manipulative monkey convinces an unsuspecting cat to steal chestnuts from a fire. As the cat burns its paw stealing the chestnuts, the monkey devours them one by one. In employment law, Cat’s Paw arises where a plaintiff seeks to impute the discriminatory animus of a nondecisionmaker to an innocent decisionmaker to hold the employer liable.
The Seventh Circuit held that the Cat’s Paw theory requires the discriminating nondecisionmaker to possess “singular influence” over the decision maker who responds with “blind reliance.” The decisionmaker merely relying in part on the nondecisionmaker is insufficient. Trial judges must make “a threshold determination of whether a reasonable jury could find singular influence before admitting evidence of nondecisionmaker animus.”
The Supreme Court will now likely establish the contours of the Cat’s Paw theory for courts to apply to employment discrimination cases in the future.