Written by Michael Arnold
It is no secret that employers were not pleased with U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Staub v. Proctor handed down in March. And why would they be? Under Staub, a case where an employee claimed that his termination was motivated by discrimination, employers were told that they could be held liable for discrimination even if the ultimate decision maker was unbiased, if the decision maker was somehow influenced by someone who was biased. This theory of liability is known as a cat’s paw – a reference from a 17th Century French Fable, “The Monkey and the Cat,” in which a wily monkey convinces an unsuspecting cat to pull roasting chestnuts from a fire, and then eats the chestnuts while the cat nurses its burned paws. As it relates to employment discrimination cases, cat’s paw liability is found where the ultimate (and unbiased) decision maker acts as the cat’s paw for the individual motivated by discrimination.
The Staub Court did not provide much guidance to employers as to what types of influences could result in cat’s paw liability, and even refused to consider the question of whether an employer could be held liable where the employer’s co-worker, rather than his or her supervisor, improperly influenced the decision affecting the employee.
Last week, a Federal Court in New York’s Eastern District answered that question in the negative. In Abdelhadi v. City of New York, 08 Civ. 380, 2011 WL 3422832 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 4, 2011) (Block, J.), the court distinguished between co-workers and supervisors, finding it inappropriate to extend the cat’s paw theory of liability to the acts of co-workers because their acts are often “gratuitous,” whereas supervisors “are usually expected to give feedback on their subordinates to decision makers as part of their duties.” The court dismissed the case, in part, because the plaintiff failed to show that any “supervisor” influenced the decision of the unbiased decision maker to terminate his employment.
It remains to be seen whether the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the other New York District Courts will endorse the Eastern District’s refusal to expand the scope of cat’s paw liability to co-worker acts. In the meantime, employers may rest a little easier.