Hospital found liable in firing

The cat’s paw theory of liability is gaining ground in employment discrimination cases, as noted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision March 1.

The theory was developed from a fable made famous by Jean de La Fontaine in which a monkey convinces an unwitting cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. The cat keeps pulling chestnuts from the fire one by one, burning his paw in the process, and the monkey eagerly gobbles them up, leaving none for the cat.

Today, the cat’s paw theory of liability refers to one who is used by another to accomplish his purposes.

Such was the case of Staub v. Proctor Hospital. Staub was employed as an angiography technician by Proctor Hospital while also a member of the Army Reserve. Both his immediate supervisor and that supervisor’s supervisor were hostile to his military obligations.

Proctor’s vice president of human resources, after hearing complaints from those supervisors, fired Staub, who in turn filed a claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.

The act forbids an employer to deny re-employment, retention in employment, promotion or any benefit based upon a person’s membership in a uniformed service. The act holds the company liable if that person’s uniformed service is a motivating factor in the firing.

At trial, the jury found Proctor Hospital liable and awarded Staub damages, but then the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that Proctor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the decision-maker, the vice president of human resources, had relied on more than the two supervisors’ advice in making her decision.

Eventually, Staub prevailed in the high court. The Supreme Court found that under the cat’s paw theory of liability, Proctor Hospital is liable under the USERRA because hostility toward Staub’s military obligations was a motivating factor in the decision to fire him.

From the Supreme Court decision, it appears there might have been a different result had the vice president of human resources not taken at face value the supervisors’ comments, but conducted her own investigation.

A human resource manager should understand that if she makes a decision to fire someone based upon the facts provided by another employee, the employer can be liable for an employment discrimination case.

J. Daniel Marr is a director and shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. whose legal practice includes counseling businesses and business persons on a variety of legal issues. He can be reached at dmarr@nashualaw.com.