Category Archives: US Supreme Court

US Supreme Court Rules for Employee on “Cat’s Paw” Theory

The Unit­ed States Supreme Court recent­ly unan­i­mous­ly issued a major vic­to­ry for employ­ees under “USERRA”, the Uni­formed Ser­vices Employ­ment and Reem­ploy­ment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq., on the “cat’s paw” the­o­ry in employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion claims. The deci­sion was in Staub v. Proc­tor Hos­pi­tal, — U.S. — (March 1, 2011) (opin­ion at Google Schol­ar). Jus­tice Scalia wrote the opin­ion for the unan­i­mous court. Jus­tice Ali­to wrote an opin­ion con­cur­ring in the judg­ment, which Jus­tice Thomas joined. Jus­tice Kagan did not par­tic­i­pate in the deci­sion.

What is the “Cat’s Paw” Sce­nario?

Drew's kitty-cat, HannaSo, what the heck is the “cat’s paw” the­o­ry? Does it explain why my cat, pic­tured at the left, is star­ing so intent­ly at you?

First, to define “cat’s paw” in a non-legal con­text, the Webster’s Online dic­tio­nary defines a “cat’s paw” as: “A per­son used by anoth­er to gain an end.” The term aris­es out of a fable in which a a shrewd mon­key tricks a cat into pulling roast­ing chest­nuts out of a fire—the cat gets its paw burned, and the mon­key gets the chest­nuts and scam­pers away unhurt.

Con­tin­ue read­ing US Supreme Court Rules for Employ­ee on “Cat’s Paw” The­o­ry

Analysis: The “No Blood No Foul” Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?

I pre­vi­ous­ly wrote about the Supreme Court’s retal­i­a­tion deci­sion in Burling­ton North­ern & Sante Fe Rail­way Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burling­ton North­ern v. White”), in which the US Supreme Court sub­stan­tial­ly broad­ened the abil­i­ty of employ­ees to file retal­i­a­tion claims under Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964. It was a unan­i­mous (9–0) deci­sion.

National Basketball Association I want­ed to set out some addi­tion­al thoughts about Burling­ton North­ern, because it address­es an issue that has trou­bled the courts in inter­pret­ing the fed­er­al anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws: When is an employer’s con­duct seri­ous enough in dis­ad­van­tag­ing an employ­ee so that the employ­ee has a claim under the employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion laws? The answer is easy when the employer’s deci­sion affects the employee’s pock­et book, like with ter­mi­na­tion, fail­ure to hire, demo­tions, and the like. The answer has been much hard­er when the employer’s con­duct didn’t direct­ly affect the employee’s pock­et book.

NBA ref­er­ees strug­gle with a sim­i­lar issue: where is there enough phys­i­cal con­tact on the court to jus­ti­fy call­ing a foul on a play­er. So let’s explore some par­al­lels between these employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion issues and the NBA’s “no blood no foul” rule.

The NBA’s “No Blood No Foul” Rule

If you watch Nation­al Bas­ket­ball Asso­ci­a­tion games, you might be struck by how much phys­i­cal con­tact there is on the court and how rarely the ref­er­ees call per­son­al fouls over that phys­i­cal con­tact. Fans of the NBA have only a par­tial­ly kid­ding way to refer to the “stan­dard” by which the ref­er­ees decide how much con­tact will result in a per­son­al foul being called. It’s the “no blood no foul” rule. In oth­er words, the ref­er­ees will allow a lot of phys­i­cal con­tact, and will only call a foul when some­one gets blood­ied as a result of the con­tact.

Let’s assume, with our tongues in our cheeks, that there is such a rule (no blood no foul) that NBA ref­er­ees apply, regard­less of what is writ­ten in the Offi­cial Rules. The idea behind the “no blood no foul” rule is this: there is so much fast-paced hur­ley-burly con­tact on the bas­ket­ball court, much of which makes it more excit­ing for the fans, that call­ing a foul for any phys­i­cal con­tact (or a low­er defined lev­el of phys­i­cal con­tact) would slow down the game for fans and make the game less enjoy­able, unrea­son­ably impede the skill of the play­ers, and makes it impos­si­bly hard for offi­cials to iden­ti­fy “con­tact”. So the appear­ance of blood is a more “objec­tive” indi­ca­tion that the con­tact real­ly mat­tered and real­ly con­sti­tut­ed an unfair inter­fer­ence with the oth­er play­er.

The Supreme Court Strug­gles With “When is There a Foul”?

Courts for years have strug­gled with the employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion equiv­a­lent of the “no blood no foul” rule. For the courts, assum­ing unlaw­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion occurred: when is the con­se­quence of the dis­crim­i­na­tion seri­ous enough and objec­tive­ly dis­cernible so that courts will rec­og­nize a claim and inter­vene by acti­vat­ing the court’s process and poten­tial­ly award­ing dam­ages.

Except for sit­u­a­tions involv­ing hos­tile work envi­ron­ment, the courts have trans­lat­ed the NBA’s blood require­ment into a tan­gi­ble eco­nom­ic con­se­quence. Thus, much in the spir­it of the NBA, the courts have said eco­nom­ic harm must be demon­stra­ble as a result of dis­crim­i­na­tion, or else the courts won’t enter­tain the claim no eco­nom­ic con­se­quence, no legal vio­la­tion, case dis­missed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Analy­sis: The “No Blood No Foul” Rule. When is an Employer’s Con­duct Severe Enough to Con­sti­tute Retal­i­a­tion?

President Obama Nominates Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor Pres­i­dent Oba­ma today announced (CNN sto­ry and video) his nom­i­na­tion of Sonia Sotomay­or, cur­rent­ly a Judge on the Sec­ond Cir­cuit, to fill the posi­tion on the US Supreme Court to be vacat­ed by the res­ig­na­tion of Jus­tice David Souter.

With­in a few hours of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s announce­ment, the CATO Insti­tute and The Her­itage Foun­da­tion had sig­nif­i­cant arti­cles devot­ed to attack­ing the nom­i­na­tion. Rush Lim­baugh this after­noon called Judge Sotomay­or a “racist”. Sean Han­ni­ty called her a “rad­i­cal” who had made “out­ra­geous” and “amaz­ing” state­ments. The lib­er­al sites raced out arti­cles attack­ing the attack­ers and defend­ing Judge Sotomay­or (Talk­ing Points Memo and The Huff­in­g­ton Post).

The first item that has been cir­cu­lat­ing about Judge Sotomay­or is a state­ment she made about appel­late courts mak­ing “pol­i­cy” dur­ing a pan­el dis­cus­sion at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2005 (note: this clip is length­i­er, and pro­vides much more con­text, than the clips played on most news sites):

Con­tin­ue read­ing Pres­i­dent Oba­ma Nom­i­nates Sonia Sotomay­or for Supreme Court

Arbitration Agreements in Union Contacts are Enforceable; US Supreme Court in Penn Plaza v. Pyett

USSupremeCourtRightFountain 4/1/09: The US Supreme Court ruled that “pre-dis­pute arbi­tra­tion agree­ments” in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments (union con­tracts) are enforce­able, in Penn Plaza PLLC v. Pyett, 129 S. Ct. 1456 (2009) (5–4 deci­sion).

This was an age dis­crim­i­na­tion case under the Age Dis­crim­i­na­tion in Employ­ment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The plain­tiff was a mem­ber of a union, and the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment (union con­tract) required sub­mit­ting age dis­crim­i­na­tion claims to bind­ing arbi­tra­tion.

The US Supreme Court had pre­vi­ous­ly ruled, but not in a labor union set­ting, that arbi­tra­tion agree­ments for ADEA claims were enforce­able under the Fed­er­al Arbi­tra­tion Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. (Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 26–33 (1991)). So the real issue in Penn Plaza was whether there would be a dif­fer­ent result because of the union con­tract set­ting and the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Arbi­tra­tion Agree­ments in Union Con­tacts are Enforce­able; US Supreme Court in Penn Plaza v. Pyett

US Supreme Court Broadens Definition of “Opposition”; for Retaliation Claims; Crawford v Metropolitan Government of Nashville, 1–26-09

1/26/09: In Craw­ford v. Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment of Nashville and David­son Coun­ty, Ten­nessee, 129 S. Ct. 846 (2009), the US Supreme Court unan­i­mous­ly ruled that an employ­ee engaged in pro­tect­ed activ­i­ty under Title VII’s retal­i­a­tion pro­vi­sion by answer­ing an employer’s ques­tions in con­nec­tion with a sex­u­al harass­ment inves­ti­ga­tion start­ed by com­pa­ny rumors about a male super­vi­sor. Jus­tice Souter wrote the major­i­ty opin­ion, joined by Roberts, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Gins­burg, and Brey­er. Jus­tice Ali­to wrote an opin­ion, con­cur­ring in the judg­ment, joined by Jus­tice Thomas.

Ms. Craw­ford Responds to an Inves­ti­ga­tion into Sex­u­al Harass­ment

USSupremeCourt Here is what hap­pened: Rumors start­ed cir­cu­lat­ing about sex­u­al­ly inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior by a male super­vi­sor, Gene Hugh­es, at “Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment of Nashville and David­son Coun­ty” (“Metro”). A human resources employ­ee start­ed inves­ti­gat­ing, and asked Vicky Craw­ford whether she had seen any inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior by Mr. Hugh­es. Craw­ford respond­ed yes, and described sev­er­al instances of sex­u­al­ly inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior. For exam­ple, Ms. Craw­ford had asked Mr. Hugh­es “what’s up”, and he respond­ed by grab­bing his crotch and say­ing “you know what’s up”. On anoth­er occa­sion, Mr. Hugh­es grabbed Ms. Crawford’s head and pulled it toward his crotch. The human resources employ­ee talked to two oth­er employ­ees who sim­i­lar­ly report­ed sex­u­al­ly harass­ing behav­ior from Mr. Hugh­es.

Con­tin­ue read­ing US Supreme Court Broad­ens Def­i­n­i­tion of “Oppo­si­tion”; for Retal­i­a­tion Claims; Craw­ford v Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment of Nashville, 1–26–09

Supreme Court “fills in the blank” to recognize retaliation claims for federal employees under ADEA; Gomez-Perez v. Potter, 2008

USPS Logo 5–27-08: The US Supreme Court in Gomez-Perez v. Pot­ter, 128 S. Ct. 1931 (2008) ruled that the Age Dis­crim­i­na­tion in Employ­ment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., pro­hib­it­ed retal­i­a­tion against fed­er­al employ­ees who had com­plained about age dis­crim­i­na­tion, even though the fed­er­al employ­ee sec­tion of the ADEA did not express­ly pro­hib­it retal­i­a­tion. This was a 6–3 deci­sion. The major­i­ty opin­ion was writ­ten by Jus­tice Ali­to, in which Jus­tices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Gins­burg, and Brey­er joined. Jus­tices Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas dis­sent­ed, with dis­sent­ing opin­ions being writ­ten by Jus­tices Roberts and Thomas.

The Gap in the Fed­er­al Employ­ee Sec­tion of the ADEA

This was the prob­lem under the ADEA: The ADEA’s main sec­tion, in pro­hibit­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against employ­ees 40 and old­er, only deals with pri­vate indus­try employ­ees and state gov­ern­ment employ­ees. I will call this sec­tion of the ADEA, the “pri­vate and state employ­ee sec­tions”.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Supreme Court “fills in the blank” to rec­og­nize retal­i­a­tion claims for fed­er­al employ­ees under ADEA; Gomez-Perez v. Pot­ter, 2008

US Supreme Court broadens scope of permissible evidence for proving discrimination; Sprint/United Management v. Mendelsohn; 2/26/08

US Supreme Court Feb­ru­ary 26, 2008: The Unit­ed States Supreme Court hand­ed down its opin­ion in Sprint/United Man­age­ment Co. v. Mendel­sohn, 128 S. Ct. 1140 (2008) (Find­Law site opin­ion). The issue in this fed­er­al age dis­crim­i­na­tion case (ADEA) was whether the plain­tiff could present evi­dence to the jury about oth­er alleged old­er dis­crim­i­na­tion vic­tims, where the deci­sion made to ter­mi­nate the oth­er indi­vid­u­als was not made by the same deci­sion-mak­er that ter­mi­nat­ed the plain­tiff.

The employ­er (Sprint) con­tend­ed that evi­dence of oth­er alleged age dis­crim­i­na­tion vic­tims was not admis­si­ble where the deci­sion-mak­ers for those oth­er vic­tims were dif­fer­ent from the deci­sion-mak­ers who took action against the plain­tiff.

The Supreme Court reject­ed the employer’s argu­ment and said that the evi­dence of oth­er vic­tims might be admis­si­ble, even if dif­fer­ent deci­sion-mak­ers were involved. The tri­al court should con­duct a “bal­anc­ing test” for admis­si­bil­i­ty of dis­crim­i­na­tion against oth­er employ­ees by dif­fer­ent super­vi­sors, where the rel­e­vance of the oth­er employ­ees’ sit­u­a­tion is bal­anced against unfair prej­u­dice to the employ­er.

US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed shortly after discriminatory decision; Ledbetter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

May 29, 2007: In Led­bet­ter v. Goodyear Tire & Rub­ber Com­pa­ny, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007) (Find­Law site opin­ion), the Unit­ed States Supreme Court, in a 5–4 deci­sion, issued an impor­tant deci­sion in a sex dis­crim­i­na­tion case under Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, which sub­stan­tial­ly lim­it­ed the time peri­od avail­able to assert a claim for pay dis­crim­i­na­tion. The Supreme Court affirmed the deci­sion of the Eleventh Cir­cuit in Led­bet­ter v. Goodyear Tire and Rub­ber Com­pa­ny, Inc., 421 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2005).

Ledbetter’s Claims of Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion and Low­er Pay, and the Tri­al Result

LillyLedbetter Led­bet­ter filed a charge of sex dis­crim­i­na­tion with the EEOC in 1998 and then lat­er in the year retired. She claimed that, years ear­li­er in her career at Goodyear, male super­vi­sors gave her bad per­for­mance reviews com­pared to what men received. She claimed that Goodyear award­ed rais­es based on those per­for­mance reviews, so that her pay rais­es were reduced as a result of the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry per­for­mance reviews.

Led­bet­ter went to tri­al and per­suad­ed the jury that the per­for­mance reviews, years before she filed her EEOC charge, were dis­crim­i­na­to­ry based on her sex, and the jury found her rights had been vio­lat­ed and award­ed her dam­ages based on her low­er pay­checks through­out her career. The tri­al judge entered a “judg­ment” in Ledbetter’s favor based on the jury’s ver­dict. So Led­bet­ter won at tri­al on her sex dis­crim­i­na­tion claim under Title VII. The Eleventh Cir­cuit Court of Appeals threw out the jury ver­dict and tri­al court judg­ment for Led­bet­ter, and entered a judg­ment in favor of Goodyear, based on her fail­ure to file her EEOC charge with­in 180 days of when the per­for­mance reviews had been con­duct­ed. The Unit­ed States Supreme Court affirmed, mean­ing that Goodyear won.

Con­tin­ue read­ing US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed short­ly after dis­crim­i­na­to­ry deci­sion; Led­bet­ter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

US Supreme Court Makes it Easier to Prove Retaliation Claims, in Burlington Northern v. White, 2006

June 22, 2006: In Burling­ton North­ern & Sante Fe Rail­way Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burling­ton North­ern v. White”), the US Supreme Court sub­stan­tial­ly broad­ened the abil­i­ty of employ­ees to file retal­i­a­tion claims under Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964. It was a unan­i­mous (9–0) deci­sion.

US Supreme Court The Supreme Court broad­ened retal­i­a­tion claims in 2 ways:

First: Retal­ia­to­ry con­duct is not lim­it­ed to employer’s action at the work­place, and it is not lim­it­ed to action tak­en while the plain­tiff is still work­ing for the employ­er.

Sec­ond: Action by the employ­er may vio­late the anti-retal­i­a­tion pro­vi­sion even if it does not cause a tan­gi­ble loss, such as pay, for the plain­tiff. The con­duct may vio­late the law if it is “mate­ri­al­ly adverse” (as opposed to “triv­ial”) to the employ­ee, and might dis­suade a “rea­son­able work­er” from “mak­ing or sup­port­ing a charge of dis­crim­i­na­tion”. So, for exam­ple, trans­fers to dif­fer­ent posi­tions, even though they involve no loss in pay or ben­e­fits or pro­mo­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, might con­sti­tute unlaw­ful action because, if the trans­fer is to what a rea­son­able work­er would view as a less attrac­tive job, that might dis­suade a rea­son­able work­er from com­plain­ing of dis­crim­i­na­tion.