SteveK September 21st, 2011
In a decision that may have wide ranging impact on New Jersey employment practice the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the “cat’s paw” theory of liability under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), a statute designed to protect those in the military from discrimination. USERRA, is similar to Title VII; therefore, the opinion is likely to be applied to Title VII matters, and potentially to matters arising under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The cat’s paw theory of liability is defined as a situation where one person is used by another to accomplish their purpose. Thus, where the employer (the cat) is influenced by an employee’s discriminatory animus toward another (the cat’s paw) resulting in an adverse employment action, the employer may be liable to the adversely affected employee.
In Staub v Proctor Hospital, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Seventh Circuit absolving an employer of liability where the decision maker relied on the report of a supervisor to terminate an employee. The Supreme Court ruled that where the decision maker was influenced by the supervisor’s anti-discriminatory motives (in this case based on the employee’s service in the military), the employer is liable to the terminated employee for damages where a causal connection exists between the employers’ action and the discriminatory motives of the supervisor.
Given the dearth of New Jersey case law on this subject, Courts will need to answer the question whether the decision maker was influenced by the alleged discriminatory motives of a supervisor; an inherently fact specific inquiry. This may cause more cases to survive motions for dismissal or summary judgment in employment cases prior to trial.
DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum PC (http://www.dbnjlawblog.com) is a full service law firm in New Jersey which provides a broad range of legal services, including the representation of parties in employment matters. For additional information about the matters in this bulletin or in the firm’s Employment Practice, please contact Richard P. Flaum, Esq.
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