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.
The importance of making reasonable accommodations to workplace dress codes based on an employee’s religious practices was the focus of a recent settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Essex County, New Jersey. According to the Complaint filed by the DOJ in United States of America v. Essex County, New Jersey, Yvette Beshier, a Muslim corrections officer, was suspended and then terminated because the religious head scarf she wore violated the Essex County Department of Correction’s uniform policy. The DOJ alleged that Essex County’s treatment of Beshier constituted religious discrimination in violation of Tile VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it failed to accommodate her religious beliefs.