Cat’s Paw Theory: “Boss set me up!”

The Cat’s Paw theory that applies to some discrimination and retaliation cases.  If an employee’s supervisor, who is both biased and untruthful, convinces the employer to take an adverse action (i.e. termination, demotion, denial of promotion, suspension, etc.) against the employee, the employer could be found liable for discrimination or retaliation under the Cat’s Paw theory.  Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011)

In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011), defined an employer’s liability under the Cat’s Paw theory:

  1. a non-decision maker, who is the employee’s supervisor, is motivated by discriminatory (or retaliatory) intent;
  2. the biased non-decision maker performs an act intended to cause the employee to suffer an adverse employment action; and,
  3. the biased non-decision maker’s act is a proximate cause of the adverse action.

The term Cat’s Paw comes from a French fable.  A monkey and a cat are sitting in front of a fire.  Chestnuts are roasting in the fire and the monkey wants a chestnut.  So, the monkey convinces the cat to fetch a chestnut out of the fire.  The cat fetches a chestnut but burns his paw in the process.  Meanwhile, the monkey eats the chestnut.

An employer can be found liable for discrimination or retaliation, even if the decision maker is not biased.  Liability can be established if the decision maker relies on a non-decision maker who is biased and untruthful.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire