The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that employers may be subject to liability in discrimination cases even if the ultimate decision-maker was not biased toward the employee. Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400 (March 1, 2011). In this case, Vincent Staub filed a lawsuit against Proctor Hospital after he was discharged from his position as an angiography technologist. Staub, an Army reservist, alleged the Hospital’s stated reasons for discharge – insubordination, shirking and attitude problems – were pretextual and that the discharge was discriminatory on the basis of Staub’s military status. Allegations were made that Staub’s supervisor exhibited animosity toward Staub’s fulfillment of military obligations. Exacerbating the animus were alleged comments by his department manager.

In its defense, the Hospital presented evidence that Staub had been counseled regarding his negative attitude and disappearances from his work area. After one such incident, Staub received a written warning prohibiting him from leaving his assigned work area without permission from his supervisor or the department head. Three months later, Staub was discharged by the Vice President of Human Resources for again leaving his work area without permission. Staub disputed the basis for the discharge, stating to the Vice President of Human Resources that he left a message for his department head regarding his whereabouts. The complaint, however, was not investigated.

Although the Vice President of Human Resources who made the decision to discharge Staub was not shown to have any hostility toward his military obligations, Staub argued that the Vice President’s decision was influenced by the biased supervisor and department head. Rejecting the argument that the bias did not influence the decision, the Court explained, “if the supervisor performs an act motivated by [discriminatory] animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable.” Thus, even though the decision maker may have been unaware of the supervisor’s discriminatory animus, the adverse employment action was deemed to have been taken unlawfully.

While the implications of the decision generally are negative for employers, this “cat’s paw” theory can provide a basis for liability only if the purported biased supervisor’s action was the proximate cause of the adverse action. The Court noted, “if the employer’s investigation resulted in adverse action for reasons unrelated to the supervisor’s original biased action [], then the employer will not be liable.” In effect, the question is whether the discriminatory conduct of one manager caused a wrongful decision to be made by another who is an “innocent” actor. To avoid such exposure, employers should investigate thoroughly reports of misconduct before making discharge decisions, especially where the accused worker claims discrimination by lower level supervisors.