Mastodon How far can a Cat’s Paw reach?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How far can a Cat’s Paw reach?

Last month—in Staub v. Proctor Hosp.—the Supreme Court held that employers are liable for the discriminatory animus of managers and supervisors uninvolved with the adverse action decision making, unless the employer’s decision is entirely independent of the discriminatory input of the manager or supervisor. At the time, I argued that this broad holding would make it very difficult for employers to win summary judgment in these “cat’s paw” cases. Blount v. Ohio Bell Telephone Co.—decided a mere nine days after Staub—illustrates my point.

In Blount, two former Ohio Bell employees claimed that their employer discharged them in retaliation for taking protected leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. They argued that their managers punished FMLA users more severely than non-users who engaged in the same alleged workplace misconduct. Ohio Bell, however, argued that those managers lacked the discretion to fire the plaintiffs, and that the decision to terminate was made higher up the supervisory chain. The Court, however, concluded that the plaintiffs presented enough evidence to defeat the employer’s motion for summary judgment:

Moreover, even if the decision to punish and terminate resided higher in the supervisory chain, as Defendants argue, the animus of the Center Sales Managers can be inferred upwards where it had the effect of coloring the various adverse employment actions in this suit. See Staub v. Proctor Hospital (holding that discriminatory animus can be inferred upwards where the employee who makes the ultimate decision to punish does so in reliance upon assessments or reports prepared by supervisors who possess such animus).

The takeaway? If employers will be liable for the animus of managers and supervisors in all but the most unconnected of decisions, then businesses should get started training those managers and supervisors on their EEO responsibilities. If courts will hold you responsible for their actions, don’t you want some peace of mind that you did everything you could to guide those actions?

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or