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The United States Supreme Court Takes On Employer Liability


The cat's paw theory, as applied in employment law, allows employers to be held liable when an individual with a discriminatory animus influences the decision of another with no discriminatory animus. In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a mid-level manager with a discriminatory animus, who influenced the decision of a higher-level supervisor, was the proper set of circumstances for the cat's paw theory. In overturning the plaintiff's favorable verdict, however, the Seventh Circuit found insufficient evidence of "singular influence" over the decision-maker in applying the "'cat's paw' to 21st century federal antidiscrimination law."

In so holding, the Seventh Circuit found that without sufficient evidence of singular influence, any evidence of a discriminatory animus by the non-decisionmaker should not have been introduced. Relying on past precedent, the court found that although the decisionmaker's investigation into the non-decisionmaker's claims was "wholly robust," "it was enough that the decisionmaker 'is not wholly dependent on a single source of information' and 'conducts her own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision.'"

What becomes problematic is not applying this framework, but understanding what factual circumstances are sufficient to pass this evidentiary threshold. In Staub, the decisionmaker reviewed earlier disciplinary write-ups, written by the non-decisionmaker, and relied on past remarks she claimed she overheard that Staub was a problematic employee. The decisionmaker failed to interview any of these other employees, however. The Seventh Circuit stated the decisionmaker must have a "blind reliance." As the facts summarized by the Seventh Circuit indicate little otherwise than blind reliance, and thus singular influence over the decisionmaker, the Seventh Circuit has created a high threshold in applying the cat's paw theory. The Supreme Court is set to review this decision during the term beginning in October.

Further information can be found here.

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