Company decisions on hiring and firing often are made by more than one person. Many times, a lower-level manager influences the decision of a more senior manager. In employment discrimination lawsuits, defendants frequently argue that the “ultimate decision-maker” was not motivated by discrimination even if a lower-level manager may have been. Employees, on the other hand, argue that the lower-level manager’s discrimination infects the entire decision-making process. Lawyers call it “cat’s paw” liability based on an old fable where a cat used a monkey unwittingly to do his bidding.
In an important decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the cat’s paw theory is a legitimate way to prove discrimination. See Staub v. Proctor Hospital (March 1, 2011). The Supreme Court’s ruling solidifies this theory of liability for use in all kinds of employment lawsuits such as discrimination, retaliation, and whistle-blowing. While this theory has been used in New Jersey for some time, the US Supreme Court’s endorsement of it no doubt will increase its use in state and federal employment litigation.
March 5, 2011 – Castronovo & McKinney – Paul Castronovo