Wyatt Employment Law Report

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Supreme Court Decides “Cat’s Paw” Case Brought Under USERRA

By Edwin S. Hopson

On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. ____, No. 09-400 (March 1, 2011).  While employed by Proctor Hospital, Vincent Staub was also in the U. S. Army Reserves. Staub’s immediate supervisor  and her boss were openly hostile to Stuab’s obligations as an Army Reservist. Staub received a corrective action from his supervisor and, after receiving a report that Staub had violated the corrective action, the hospital’s human resources manager fired Staub. Staub complained that his discharge was on account of his being a Reservist but the HR manager refused to change the decision. Staub filed suit against the hospital under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), claiming his discharge was on account of his status as an Army Reservist.  Specifically, Staub claimed that his membership in the U.S. Army Reserves was a motivating factor in his discharge and that the supervisors were motivated by hostility to his military obligations and they influenced the HR manager to take the adverse action.  A jury found for Staub and awarded damages against the hospital.  However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the hospital was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the HR manager had relied on more than the supervisors’ recommendation in making the decision to discharge Staub.  Applying the so-called “cat’s paw” theory first espoused by Judge Posner in 1990, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that it was enough that the decision maker was not wholly dependent on a single source of information and had conducted her own investigation into the facts surrounding the events leading to Staub’s discharge.

 The High Court reversed the Seventh Circuit in an opinion by Justice Scalia, joined in by all but Justice Kagan who took no part in the case, and held:

 “… that 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 is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA. Slip Opinion, page 10 (footnotes omitted).” Continue reading