Staub wins at Supreme Court: employers are liable for supervisor’s animus

In a major victory for employees with any kind of discrimination or retaliation claim, the Supreme Court yesterday held that employers are liable when a supervisor is motivated by an illegal motive, then acts within the scope of authority on behalf of the employer, and succeeds in getting someone fired. It no longer matters if the employer has the termination decision reviewed by another manager who has no knowledge of the protected status, or against whom there is no evidence of illegal motive. This holding does away with the Seventh Circuit’s narrow “cat’s paw” theory which required proof that the decision maker was a rubber stamp for the discriminating supervisor. The case is Staub v. Proctor Hospital. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which had taken away a jury’s award of $57,640 to Vincent Staub. I wrote previously about the Supreme Court’s acceptance and oral argument in this case, and you can find there the facts of what happened to Vincent Staub.

Justice Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court, began by noting that employment discrimination claims are a type of federal tort. Thus, general tort principles apply:

And it is axiomatic under tort law that the exercise of judgment by the decisionmaker does not prevent the earlier agent’s action (and hence the earlier agent’s discriminatory animus) from being the proximate cause of the harm. Proximate cause requires only “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged,” and excludes only those “link[s]that are too remote, purely contingent, or indirect.” Hemi Group, LLC v. City of New York, 559 U. S. 1, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 9) (internal quotation marks omitted).2 We do not think that the ultimate decisionmaker’s exercise of judgment automatically renders the link to the supervisor’s bias “remote” or “purely contingent.” The decisionmaker’s exercise of judgment is also a proximate cause of the employment decision, but it is common for injuries to have multiple proximate causes. See Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U. S. 692, 704 (2004). Nor can the ultimate decisionmaker’s judgment be deemed a superseding cause of the harm. A cause can be thought “superseding” only if it is a “cause of independent origin that was not foreseeable.” Exxon Co., U. S. A. v. Sofec, Inc., 517 U. S. 830, 837 (1996) (internal quotation marks omitted).

This decision will do away with all kinds of employer shenanigans in which they have adverse actions decided by some removed manager, or a committee, or an independent investigation. If an angry supervisor got the ball rolling, and intended the final outcome, then the employer will be liable for what that supervisor “proximately caused.”

Congratulations to Staub’s attorney, Eric Schnapper, of Seattle, Washington.


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