U.S. Supreme Court

Case Status


Docket Number



2010 Term

Oral Argument Date

November 02, 2010

Lower Court Opinion

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit


Questions Presented

In 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?

Case Updates

Supreme Court upholds “cat's paw” theory of liability

March 01, 2011


1. If a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA. In construing the phrase “motivating factor in the employer’s action,” this Court starts from the premise that when Congress creates a federal tort it adopts the background of general tort law. Intentional torts such as the one here “generally require that the actor intend ‘the consequences’ of an act,’ not simply ‘the act itself.’ ” However, Proctor errs in contending that an employer is not liable unless the de facto decisionmaker is motivated by discriminatory animus. So long as the earlier agent intended, for discriminatory reasons, that the adverse action occur, he has the scienter required for USERRA liability. Moreover, it is axiomatic under tort law that the decisionmaker’s exercise of judgment does not prevent the earlier agent’s action from being the proximate cause of the harm. Nor can the ultimate decisionmaker’s judgment be deemed a superseding cause of the harm. Proctor’s approach would have an improbable consequence: If an employer isolates a personnel official from its supervisors, vests the decision to take adverse employment actions in that official, and asks that official to review the employee’s personnel file before taking the adverse action, then the employer will be effectively shielded from discriminatory acts and recommendations of supervisors that were designed and intended to produce the adverse action. Proctor also errs in arguing that a decisionmaker’s independent investigation, and rejection, of an employee’s discriminatory animus allegations should negate the effect of the prior discrimination.

2. Applying this analysis here, the Seventh Circuit erred in holding that Proctor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Both Mulally and Korenchuk acted within the scope of their employment when they took the actions that allegedly caused Buck to fire Staub. There was also evidence that their actions were motivated by hostility toward Staub’s military obligations, and that those actions were causal factors underlying Buck’s decision. Finally, there was evidence that both Mulally and Korenchuk had the specific intent to cause Staub’s termination. The Seventh Circuit is to consider in the first instance whether the variance between the jury instruction given at trial and the rule adopted here was harmless error or should mandate a new trial

U.S. Chamber files amicus brief

September 08, 2010

NCLC urged the Supreme Court to hold that, under the "cat's paw" theory of liability, Proctor Hospital did not discriminate against a former employee based on the employee's military status. The employee, a member of the Army reserve who was fired from his position as an angiography technologist, alleges the decision maker based the termination on false information from another supervisor who was biased against the employee's military status. Under the "cat's paw" theory, an employer may be liable for discrimination if a biased supervisor influences the employment decision, even if the ultimate decision maker had no discriminatory intent or bias. In its brief, NCLC argued that the high court should apply principles of causation and agency law that hold employers liable only for discriminatory exercises of delegated authority. Even in matters initiated or influenced by the act of a biased supervisor, there is no proximate cause for an employee's termination where a non-biased decision maker conducted an independent evaluation of the matter and made the termination decision.

Case Documents