Supreme Court Watch: Part 2

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on several important employment-law cases this term. Last week, we posted about the upcoming argument in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., in which the Court will address the requirements for an employee who claims retaliation based on the FLSA.

In this, the second part of this series, we look to an equally anticipated case, Staub v. Proctor HospitalStaub, like Kasten, is on appeal from the Seventh Circuit.  In Staub, the Supreme Court will examine   under what circumstances may an employer be held liable based on the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

Staub sued his employer, alleging that he was discharged in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Staub prevailed after a jury trial. His employer appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed the trial decision.

At trial, Staub proceeded under the “cat’s paw” theory. That theory, derived from the 17th century French fable “The Monkey and the Cat,” is understood today to mean “when one is used by another to accomplish his purposes.” The cat’s paw theory is a way of proving discrimination when the actual decisionmaker is unbiased, but the discriminatory animus of a non-decisionmaker is imputed upon the decisionmaker, typically where the non-decisionmaker has singular influence on the decisionmaker.

Staub, an Army reservist, alleged that the reasons given for his discharge where mere pretext for discrimination based on his association with the military. USERRA prohibits adverse action based upon a prohibited criterion, in this case military status. Like other discrimination law, a plaintiff alleging a USERRA claim must show that the decisionmaker harbored animus toward him and relied upon that animus in choosing to take action against the plaintiff.

Staub won at trial, and his employer appealed. On appeal, the hospital argued, inter alia, that the trial court mishandled the cat’s paw theory. The Seventh Circuit agreed, finding that to succeed on a cat’s paw theory, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the decisionmaker blindly relied upon the non-decisionmaker’s influence. The appellate court also held that prior to admitting evidence of a non-decisionmaker’s animus, a trial court should determine whether a reasonable jury could find the presence of a singular influence over the decisionmaker.

This case is scheduled for oral argument on November 2, 2010. The Court will examine the circumstances which must be present for an employer to be held liable for the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influence, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

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