Friday, November 13, 2015

The Cat's Paw Takes A Swipe at But-For Causation

After the Supreme Court’s decision in University of Tex. Southwestern Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S. Ct. 2517 (2013), holding that but-for causation is the standard for proving retaliation in a Title VII case, many thought that there was an open question as to whether the holding in Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 562 U.S. 411 (2011), the so-called “Cat’s Paw” case, would apply in a but-for causation context.  In Staub the Court held that, if the discriminating employee proximately caused the ultimate decisionmaker’s adverse action, then the “Cat’s” discriminatory intent would be imputed to the ultimate decisionmaker even though the decisionmaker was not consciously discriminating.  
So far, four circuits have weighed in on this question, unanimously concluding that even after Nassar, plaintiffs may use a “Cat’s Paw” theory even in Title VII retaliation cases.  See Zamora v. City of Houston, 798 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2015); EEOC v. New Breed Logistics, 783 F.3d 1057, 1070 (6th Cir. 2015); Ward v. Jewell, 772 F.3d 1199, 1203, 1205 (10th Cir. 2014); Bennett v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 721 F.3d 546, 551 (8th Cir. 2013); see also Godwin v. WellStar Health Sys., Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 518 (11th Cir. 2015) (using Cat’s Paw analysis in an ADEA case that required but-for causation).  

Judge Clement, writing for the Fifth Circuit panel in Zamora, stated the holding as follows: “…the applicable standard of causation is relevant only to the latter portion of this Staub test – instead of being a proximate cause, the supervisor’s act must be a ‘[but-for] cause of the ultimate employment action.’” (citation omitted) Zamora v. City of Houston, at 332.  In doing so, Judge Clemente references Seoane-Vazquez v. Ohio State Univ., 577 F.App’x 418, 427-29 (6th Cir. 2014), where the Sixth Circuit substituted but-for causation for motivating factor causation in applying "Cat’s Paw" analysis in a post-Nassar case.  With decisions like Zamora and the Fourth Circuit’s blockbuster holding in Foster v. Univ. of Md. – E. Shore, 787 F.3d 243 (4th Cir. 2015), which held that Nassar’s but-for analysis only applies to direct-evidence cases, and not to McDonald-Douglas cases, the bar and the courts are confronted with the herculean task of drafting jury instructions that the jury can comprehend and that will pass muster in the appellate courts.  Undoubtedly, some of these issues regarding causation will filter back up to the Supreme Court, and, hopefully, we will get more clarity on what causation scheme applies to the alphabet soup of statutory employment claims.  

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