The Cases Companies Are Watching: The Cat’s Paw Cases

*** 3/1/11 Update: The Supreme Court upheld the Cat’s Paw theory today in Staub v. Proctor Hospital. Check out this post to read more about the Staub case, and enter your email address in the subscribe section on the right to receive email updates regarding hot topics in employment law.

In yet another “Cat’s Paw” case, the Seventh Circuit has explored the boundaries of employer liability under Title VII. Awaiting the Supreme Court decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Seventh Circuit did not have to tackle many of the complicated Cat’s Paw questions to reach its decision in Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chicago Park District. Even still, the court shed more light on the question of when an employer may be held liable for the discriminatory intent of employees who influence, but do not actually make, the ultimate employment decisions.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit explained that after the plaintiff/employee’s supervisor “exploded in a racial tirade,” the employee was fired within a matter of hours. Upon hearing this evidence, along with testimony regarding the supervisor’s role in the employee’s termination, the jury ruled in favor of the employee and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages. Notwithstanding the verdict, the district court granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of the company, finding that the supervisor’s demonstrated racial bias could not have resulted in the decision to terminate the employee.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed and found that there was sufficient evidence that the jury could have concluded the supervisor had decisive input in the decision to terminate the employee.  Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and explained that the company was liable for the supervisor’s discriminatory animus, even though the supervisor was not the one who “pulled the trigger” to end the employee’s employment.  However, the Seventh Circuit found that the jury’s verdict was too high, and the case was remanded to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the plaintiff for only $30,000, as the court did not believe there was sufficient evidence of “long-lasting emotional harm.” Further, the employee was entitled to seek reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

So where does the name “Cat’s Paw” come from?  The Cat’s Paw theory is named after a fable by French poet Jean de La Fontaine, titled “The Monkey and the Cat.”  In the story, “a scheming monkey convinces an unwitting cat to fetch roasting chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns its paw and the monkey gets the chestnuts. In employment discrimination cases, the ‘cat’s paw’ is the unwitting manager or supervisor who is persuaded to act based on another’s illegal bias.”

Over two decades ago in Shager v. UpJohn Company, Judge Posner first compared subordinate bias liability to the characters in this fable. Since then, circuit courts have disagreed as to the standard that should be applied for employer liability. Some courts extended liability to cases where employees who had any influence over the decision-maker exhibited discriminatory animus. Other courts required employees to have actually caused the decisions made by the decision-maker, and even others limited liability and focused only on the decisions and discriminatory animus, if any, of the actual decision-maker.

The Cat’s Paw cases address the reality of everyday workplaces where decisions, such as terminating employees, are collectively made and based on the input of many individuals. While not precedential in other jurisdictions, the Seventh Circuit provides a useful reminder as to why decision-makers and Human Resources Departments should be careful not to simply “rubber-stamp” a termination based on the recommendation of others.

“Under any formulation of the cat’s paw standard, the chain of causation can be broken if the unbiased decisionmaker conducts a meaningful and independent investigation of the information being supplied by the biased employee.”

It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will follow this reasoning, but for now, the Seventh Circuit underscores the message in La Fontaine’s fable – before the cat reaches into the fire next time, let’s hope the cat takes a minute to consider what the monkey is telling him to do.

About Ashley Kasarjian

Attorney at Snell and Wilmer in Phoenix, Arizona, and publisher of the blog, Employment and the Law.
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