The cat’s paw theory of liability is gaining ground in employment discrimination cases, as noted in a March 1, 2011 United States Supreme Court decision. The theory was developed from a fable made famous by La Fontaine in which a monkey convinces an unwitting cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. The cat keeps pulling chestnuts from the fire one by one burning his paw in the process and the monkey eagerly gobbles them up leaving none for the cat. Today the cat’s paw theory of liability refers to one used by another to accomplish his purposes. A Human Resource Manager should understand that if she makes a decision to fire someone based upon the facts provided to her from another employee, if that employee had a discriminatory bias, the employer can be liable for an employment discrimination case even though the Human Resource Manager had no such bias. Therefore, if the Human Resource Manager takes those statements at face value without doing her own investigation and as a result fires an employee, the fired employee may have a valid employment discrimination claims against the employer.
Such was the case of Staub v. Proctor Hospital. In that case, Staub was employed as an angiograpy technician by Proctor Hospital while being a member of the United States Army Reserve. Both his immediate supervisor and that supervisor’s supervisor were hostile to his military obligations. Proctor’s Vice President of Human Resource, after having complaints from those supervisors, fired Staub and he filed a claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”) which forbids an employer to deny reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment based upon a person’s membership in or obligation to perform services in a uniformed service and provides liability of an employer if that person’s uniformed service membership is a motivating factor in the employer’s action.
The jury found Proctor liable at trial and awarded Staub damages, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that Proctor Hospital was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the decision maker, the Vice President of Human Resources, had relied on more than the two supervisors’ advice in making her decision. The Supreme Court found that under the cat’s paw theory of liability that since the supervisors were hostile to Staub’s military obligations, Proctor Hospital is liable under the USERRA because that hostility towards Staub’s obligations was a motivating factor in the decision to fire him. From the Supreme Court decision, it appears there might have been a different result had the Vice President of Human Resources not taken at face value the supervisors’ comments, but did her own investigation.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].