Employment Discrimination: “Cat’s Paw” Liability Upheld

In a significant employment discrimination decision, the U.S Supreme Court has just ruled that an Army Reservist who had a civilian job as a hospital technician could bring a lawsuit for employment bias and discrimination against him due to his commitment to the military.

In addition to being a positive result for the man who brought the lawsuit, this case is important because of the theory the court relied on to find that an employer may be liable for discrimination. Under what is called “cat’s paw” liability, the court determined that an employee may be able to hold an employer liable where the illegal bias of a supervisor who does not have the authority to make an ultimate employment decision – such as hiring or firing – serves as a “motivating factor” in the decision making process.

Here, an unbiased human resources manager fired the technician based on negative performance reviews. But, the technician relied on the “cat’s paw” theory to argue that his firing was discriminatory because the performance reviews were illegally biased. The technician claimed that his two immediate supervisors were anti-military and wrote negative comments about him in their reviews. Discrimination against those serving in the military is a violation of the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act . The human resources manager then took these findings at face value, and fired the man.

The Supreme Court determined that even though the human resource manager may not be biased, the fact that her decision was tainted by improperly motivated comments was enough to bring a claim of discrimination against the hospital. Also, even if the human resource manager had conducted an independent investigation, where a discriminatory bias is an influence in a negative employment decision, an employer may be held liable for discrimination.