What is ‘cat’s paw’ liability?

Q. I’ve been hearing a new term lately: “cat’s paw” lia­bil­ity. What is it, and why should I be worried about it?

A. You have been hearing about cat’s paw liability because the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a big case—Staub v. Proctor Hospital—that involves this legal principle. Cat’s paw liability holds that, even if a firing manager is unbiased, the company may be liable for discrimination if the manager based the termination decision on the recommendation of a biased lower-level supervisor.

Read more about the case in “Supreme Court: Check boss bias before disciplining.”

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, a senior HR executive OK’d the firing of an employee based on a supervisor’s claim that the employee violated the terms of a disciplinary warning. However, HR never investigated the supervisor’s corrective action report or determined whether it was issued for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.

A jury later found that the employee’s supervisors imposed discipline because they resented his absences arising from his military obligations with the U.S. Army Reserve. Absences from work for military leave are protected by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

The key lesson from Staub: When deciding whether to terminate an employee, you need to conduct more than a cursory review of an employee’s personnel file. HR must thoroughly and impartially review the employee’s performance and job history before making an employment decision adverse to the employee.