Stay informed and ready to meet both everyday challenges and long-term planning and policy-making goals, with focused news, practical information, and strategic insights on all HR-related developments.
Sept. 1 — Employers need to keep a close eye out for potential biases of witnesses and managers when investigating employee complaints of workplace discrimination.
That’s the big takeaway from a ruling Aug. 29 by a federal appeals court in New York, a pair of employment law attorneys told Bloomberg BNA.
Employers should and likely will be more cautious and “think twice about relying on” statements by a complaining employee’s co-workers in the wake of Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service Inc., 2016 BL 280409 (2d Cir.), plaintiffs’ attorney Mike Pospis of Pospis Law PLLC in New York said Aug. 31.
In Vasquez, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said for the first time that the “cat’s paw” theory of employer liability applies to claims under the primary federal employment discrimination law—Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Under the cat’s paw doctrine, employers can be liable for job bias if it’s shown that a nonbiased supervisor who made the decision to fire or otherwise discipline an employee was influenced to do so by another worker who harbored a discriminatory or retaliatory intent against the employee.
Perhaps more significantly, the court joined one other federal appeals court in holding that employers can be found liable under the theory when the worker whose bad intent influenced the decision maker was a co-worker of the employee.
The U.S. Supreme Court has only applied the cat’s paw doctrine where a decision maker was influenced by the bias of another supervisor.
The Second Circuit ruling “broadens the scope of liability for employers,” Pospis said.
The Second Circuit in Vasquez “placed kind of a negligence-based overlay on what otherwise appears to be an employment discrimination or retaliation case,” Joseph Baumgarten of management firm Proskauer Rose LLP said Aug. 31.
He was referring to that part of the court’s holding that established a negligence standard for analyzing cat’s paw claims in situations in which a biased co-worker corrupts an otherwise neutral supervisor’s decision-making process.
In such situations, the employee who was harmed by the bias can recover if she can show the employer was negligent in failing to uncover the co-worker’s biased intent.
The Vasquez decision drew on the Supreme Court’s landmark 1998 decision in Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 77 FEP Cases 1 (1998), which laid out the standard under which employers can be liable for negligently handling employee complaints that they’re being harassed by a co-worker.
“We see no reason why Ellerth, though written in the context of hostile work environment, should not also be read to hold an employer liable under Title VII when, through its own negligence, the employer gives effect to the retaliatory intent on one of its—even low-level—employees,” the Second Circuit wrote.
It noted that the First Circuit reached the same conclusion in Velazquez-Perez v. Developers Diversified Realty Corp., 753 F.3d 265, 122 FEP Cases 1692 (1st Cir. 2014).
The New York-based Baumgarten noted that in cases in which a neutral decision maker is influenced by the bias of another supervisor, courts have almost always applied a strict liability standard, rather than the lesser negligence test. But the courts have to some degree “been all over the lot,” he said.
In Vasquez, the plaintiff claims she was fired after telling her employer that a co-worker was sexually harassing her, and the employer, relying on doctored evidence supplied by her alleged male harasser, actually fired her for sexually harassing him.
Reviving her case, the Second Circuit found that she stated a viable claim for employer retaliation under Title VII.
The plaintiff in Vasquez alleged that her employer conducted an incomplete investigation into her sexual harassment complaint, and the Second Circuit said she should have the opportunity to develop evidence to help prove that assertion, Baumgarten said.
Her potential ability to show the employer’s investigation was incomplete, coupled with possible evidence of her alleged harasser’s intent to retaliate against her for reporting him for sexual harassment, “is why the case is going forward,” he said.
Baumgarten said the ruling could have a significant impact on employers’ exposure to and liability for damages for workplace discrimination. “Anything that expands the population of workers whose bad intent” can lead to possible claims of discrimination or retaliation against a company “increases the company’s potential liability and exposure,” he said.
“What the case does is really expand the circumstances under which” evidence of a flawed investigation together with proof of a witness’s bad intent may create potential exposure for a company to liability for employment bias, Baumgarten said.
Pospis said another important takeaway from Vasquez is that its holding will probably send “reverberations throughout other employment discrimination statutes with similar proof standards.”
For example, he said courts may embrace the argument in cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act that they should apply a negligence standard to cat’s paw claims involving allegedly biased co-workers since ADA and Title VII claims both require proof that a discriminatory intent was a motivating factor in the challenged employment action.
The Supreme Court case that first recognized the cat’s paw doctrine— Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. 411, 111 FEP Cases 993 (2011)—was decided under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, another statute that uses a “motivating factor” standard to assess worker discrimination claims.
On the other hand, courts are less likely to apply Vasquez’s negligence standard in cat’s paw cases brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Pospis said. The ADEA uses a more demanding “but-for” standard of proof of causation, he said.
Baumgarten stressed that the Second Circuit made clear in Vasquez that employer liability isn’t automatic in situations in which a company takes adverse action against an employee based on the biased influence of a co-worker/witness.
An employer still “can get it wrong” during a workplace investigation, “so long as it acted reasonably under the circumstances,” he said.
Companies—at least those in the First and Second circuits, which include Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island and Vermont—need to make sure in workplace bias investigations involving multiple witnesses and decision makers that “there are no underlying motives or biases” at play, Baumgarten said.
That’s true even if it’s clear that management had the “purest motives” in its handling of the situation, he added.
“The bottom line is that you always want to conduct reasonably thorough investigations,” tailored to the particular circumstances at hand, Baumgarten said.
His advice for employers is to “approach every investigation with a critical eye toward the biases of potential witnesses, to test their credibility and motives.”
It’s always been important to take that approach, and the Vasquez decision makes it even more important to do so, Baumgarten said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at email@example.com
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
All Bloomberg BNA treatises are available on standing order, which ensures you will always receive the most current edition of the book or supplement of the title you have ordered from Bloomberg BNA’s book division. As soon as a new supplement or edition is published (usually annually) for a title you’ve previously purchased and requested to be placed on standing order, we’ll ship it to you to review for 30 days without any obligation. During this period, you can either (a) honor the invoice and receive a 5% discount (in addition to any other discounts you may qualify for) off the then-current price of the update, plus shipping and handling or (b) return the book(s), in which case, your invoice will be cancelled upon receipt of the book(s). Call us for a prepaid UPS label for your return. It’s as simple and easy as that. Most importantly, standing orders mean you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you’re relying on. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.960.1220 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put me on standing order at a 5% discount off list price of all future updates, in addition to any other discounts I may quality for. (Returnable within 30 days.)
Notify me when updates are available (No standing order will be created).
This Bloomberg BNA report is available on standing order, which ensures you will all receive the latest edition. This report is updated annually and we will send you the latest edition once it has been published. By signing up for standing order you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you need. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.372.1033, option 5, or by sending us an email to email@example.com.
Put me on standing order
Notify me when new releases are available (no standing order will be created)