In Straub v. Proctor Hosp., 562 U.S. 411 (2011), the United States Supreme Court held that employers could be held liable for intentional discrimination, even if the decisionmakers had no discriminatory intent, if they relied on reports made by supervisors who did have a discriminatory motive. Such liability is known as “cat’s paw” liability. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania now has provided insight into whether this theory of liability is viable when an employer has conducted an investigation of the report. Holt v. Commonwealth, No. 10-5510 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 19, 2015).
In Holt, the purportedly discriminating supervisor reported wrongdoing by the plaintiff, and the matter then was referred to a separate group which conducted the investigation. Investigators interviewed the supervisor, but also interviewed others and took additional steps to determine that discipline was appropriate. The supervisor had no further control over the matter. The court held that merely referring a matter for investigation and subsequently being interviewed, without more, was insufficient to invoke cat’s paw liability.
The court noted that the Third Circuit in Jones v. SEPTA, No. 14-3814, 2015 WL 4746391 (3d Cir. Aug. 12, 2015), recently came to the same conclusion in a similar case. In Jones, the supervisor had reported alleged wrongdoing by the plaintiff, and the matter was investigated. The court noted that the decisionmaker did not simply rubberstamp the supervisor’s report of wrongdoing, but initiated an investigation, which ultimately led to the discipline at issue in the case.
Why Is This Important To You? This case underscores the importance of conducting investigations before disciplinary decisions are made. Cat’s paw liability can make an employer liable where a nondiscriminatory decisionmaker adopts the report or recommendation of a discriminatory supervisor without further investigation or with little investigation. A thorough investigation, however, may protect employers from such liability. Employers are well advised to conduct such investigations before taking adverse actions against employees.
If you have questions on this or any other employment law issue, please contact Whitney Rahman at (717) 509-7237 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.