In the most recent issue of the New Jersey Labor & Employment Quarterly, Kelly Ann Bird and Zeenat Basrai analyze whether an employee can release claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”) as part of a separation agreement. The scant caselaw construing USERRA has resulted in confusion over whether USERRA claims can be waived, and if so, what language a waiver must include to be enforceable. The article discusses practical steps employers can take to protect themselves from an employee bringing a USERRA claim after signing a separation or settlement agreement, such as drafting the waiver using clear and unambiguous language and giving the employee sufficient time to review and consider the agreement before signing it.
It is now clear that an employer may be held liable for unlawful discrimination when it unwittingly terminates an employee based on a supervisor’s recommendation or false allegations motivated by discriminatory animus. The United States Supreme Court, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-400, 562 U.S. _(March 1, 2011), resolved a split in the lower courts over the reach of the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which gets its name from the 17th century fable by French poet Jean de La Fontaine. In the fable, a monkey convinces a cat to remove chestnuts from a fire. The cat complies, pulling out the chestnuts one at a time, burning its paw in the process, as the monkey feasts on the chestnuts. In the employment context, the “cat’s paw” refers to a situation in which a biased subordinate employee, who lacks decision-making authority, uses the final decisionmaker as a dupe to trigger a discriminatory employment action. In Staub, the Court held that if the decision to terminate is based in whole or in part on the malicious recommendation or false allegations from a supervisor who has discriminatory motives, the employer can be held liable under federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination.
Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Liability; Decision Anticipated Later This Term
For the first time the United States Supreme Court is poised to provide guidance on the “cat’s paw” theory of liability in employment discrimination cases. Under the “cat’s paw” theory, an employee alleging to be the victim of unlawful discrimination seeks to impose liability on the employer in situations where a non-biased decision-maker is influenced by another, usually subordinate, employee who is, in fact, motivated by discriminatory animus. In Staub v. Proctor, the Supreme Court recently heard oral argument on the proper application of the “cat’s paw” theory, which gets its name from the 17th century fable by French poet Jean de La Fontaine. In the fable a monkey convinces a cat to remove chestnuts from a fire. The cat complies, pulling out the chestnuts one at a time, burning her paw in the process, as the monkey feasts on the chestnuts.