Last year, the Supreme Court of the United States made a decision that allows employers to be liable for discrimination based on the bias of an employee’s supervisors, even though the supervisors did not make the actual decision to terminate the employee. The decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, was described by many as the most important employment law decision of the last decade.
The Court’s decision in Staub didn’t address whether the biased supervisor can be held individually liable in cat’s paw cases. A new decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals answers that question.
Supervisors can be found individually liable for discrimination when the claim is brought under a statute that recognizes individual liability. In Smith v. Bray, the individual defendant was a human resources manager who allegedly caused management to fire the plaintiff due to past complaints of race discrimination. Because the race discrimination and retaliation claims were filed under the 1870 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, a statute that recognizes individual liability, the plaintiff was able to seek relief against the individual human resources manager.
The Court affirmed summary judgment for the human resources manager due to insufficient evidence of a discriminatory or retaliatory motive.
Even though this individual defendant was not personally held liable for discrimination (due to a lack of evidence), the case is a good reminder that individual supervisors can be held liable for discrimination. It can – and does – happen.