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“Cat’s paw theory” is back

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide — as it had once before, without a result — an employer’s legal duty under the so-called “cat’s paw theory,” as applied to the law of the workplace.  The Court had agreed to rule on that issue three years ago, but that case was dismissed by the parties before the Court could hear it.  The U.S. Solicitor General, asked by the Supreme Court for advice on a new case, urged the Justices to grant review; they did so, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital (09-400).

This was one of four new cases the Court granted on Monday. All will be heard and decided in the next Term, opening in early October.  In Monday’s orders, the Court also refused to hear several significant new cases — including a case on the fairness of a criminal trial that involved a judge and a prosecutor who had previously had an intimate relationship, not fully disclosed when the case came to trial.

The “cat’s paw theory” that is at issue in the newly granted case gets its name from a 17th Century French poet and his story about a money who persuaded a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire, and got burned in the process.  As that theory applies to employment law, it would hold the employer legally to blame for discrimination in the workplace by an employee who does not make the actual job decision, but influences the one who does.

That theory often arises under Title VII, the nation’s leading law on discrimination in the workplace.  However, in the Staub case, it arises under a federal law that protects members of the military services who have civilian jobs; it assures that they will not be targeted for unfair treatment based on their military service or duties.  The new case involves a Peoria, Ill., man, Vincent E. Staub, who lost his job as a technician at Proctor Hospital after prolonged disputes with his supervisors over the time he took off to fulfill his occasional duties as an Army Reserve member.

The three other cases the Court added to its docket for decision next Term involve the scope of the exemption from copyright infringement — specifically, the “first sale doctrine” — for goods that are made in other countries, purchased there, and then brought back into the U.S. without the copyright owner’s consent (Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Omega S.A., 08-1423); the right of a bankrupt individual to reduce the amount of funds available to pay off debt under a Chapter 13 plan for the expense of operating a car the debtor owned free of any debt (Random v. MBNA America Bank, 09-907), and a case seeking clarification of the authority of the special federal court that decides claims against the federal government — the Court of Federal Claims (U.S. v. Tohono O’odham Nation, 09-846).

The Court, in another order, asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the government’s views on the power of federal courts to rule on a case that involves potential foreign policy issues because a foreign government is involved.  The case involves a lawsuit in U.S. courts by a province of the Philippines against a Canadian mining company over alleged environmental damage done in the province over a three-decade period.  The case is Placer Dome, Inc., v. Marinduque Provincial Government (09-944).  After the government gets the Solicitor General’s advice, it will decide whether to decide the case.

Among the cases denied review Monday, perhaps the most significant was Hood v. Texas (09-8610), testing whether a criminal trial is unconstitutional if the judge trying the case had previously had an intimate sexual relationship with the lead prosecutor in the trial, and the nature of the relationship was not disclosed to the parties in the trial.  The Court gave no reason for by-passing the case, but it could have been because the affair had ended three years before the trial, and defense lawyers, at the time of the trial, did not raise the issue although they had heard repeated rumors of the relationship.  The defense lawyers for Charles Dean Hood of Plano, Texas, formerly on death row for two murders in 1990, urged the Court to take the case to make a major statement on the integrity of the judiciary and ways to protect it.  (Hood has won a new sentencing hearing in state court, based on a different challenge.)

Other issues that the Court turned aside included a test of the constitutionality of a Florida law that bars contact with voters as they leave polling places, although it does allow the media to do exit polling (Citizens for Police Accountability v. Browning, 09-861); a state’s plea to allow police to use a suspect’s identity, obtained by illegal means, to support a request to have the individual’s DNA tested for use in a new criminal case (Minnesota v. Russell, 09-781); a test of whether the transcript of a pre-trial interview with the prosecution’s key witness in a criminal case is the kind of evidence that must be shared with defense lawyers (Banks v. Thaler, 09-717); and a claim that individuals who post a bond assuring their appearance in a criminal case are entitled to receive any interest that the bond payment earns when deposited in a bank account pending the outcome of the case (Turnipseed v. Brown, 09-763).

The Court also denied review in six California cases testing the constitutionality of using a prior finding of juvenile delinquency, in a case where the juvenile had no right to a jury, to enhance a sentence for a crime committed as an adult.  The lead case was Nguyen v. California (09-604).