Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Cat's Paw Definition:

A supervisor who, rather than genuinely re-assess a subordinate's decision to discipline an employee, official cover notwithstanding, merely rubber stamps it.

"[A] cat’s paw case, meaning that (the employee) sought to hold his employer liable for the animus of a supervisor who was not charged with making the ultimate employment decision.... (A) a cat’s paw case could not succeed unless the non-decision-maker exercised such singular influence over the decision-maker that the decision to terminate was the product of blind reliance....

”The term cat’s paw derives from a fable conceived by Aesop, put into verse by La Fontaine in 1679, and injected into United States employment discrimination law.... In the fable, a monkey induces a cat by flattery to extract roasting chestnuts from the fire. After the cat has done so, burning its paws in the process, the monkey makes off with the chestnuts and leaves the cat with nothing. A coda to the fable (relevant only marginally, if at all, to employment law) observes that the cat is similar to princes who, flattered by the king, perform services on the king’s behalf and receive no reward."

These words were adopted by Justice Antoni Scalia of the Supreme Court of the United States in Staub v. Proctor Hospital.

Previously, in that same case before the United States Court of Appeals, Justice Evans had written:

"One would guess that the chances are pretty slim that the work of a 17th century French poet would find its way into a Chicago courtroom in 2009. But that's the situation in this case as we try to make sense out of what has been dubbed the cat's paw theory. The term derives from the fable The Monkey and the Cat penned by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695). In the tale, a clever—and rather unscrupulous—monkey persuades an unsuspecting feline to snatch chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns her paw in the process while the monkey profits, gulping down the chestnuts one by one. As understood today, a cat's paw is a tool or one used by another to accomplish his purposes."

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles, Justice McConell of the United States Court of Appeals referred to the:

"... cat's paw or rubber stamp theory, whereby an employer may be liable for the acts of a biased subordinate, even if that subordinate is not the formal decision-maker."

Sometimes, a personal or unreasonable and un-work related discord will develop between an employee and his or her immediate supervisor. The supervisor, motivated only by this discord, and therefore in bad faith, will terminate or discipline the employee and then seek sanction from some officer of the corporation such as the manager. Where that manager does not assess the proposed discipline but, instead, merely endorses the proposed disciplinary action, the manager is said to act as the mere cat's paw of his/her supervisor's malice. The finding of a cat's paw discredits the defence the employer may of otherwise had in presenting the unbiased supportive decision of the disciplining supervisor.

These words can be found in the 1999 opinion of the United States Court of Appeals in Stimpson v Tuscaloosa.

"One way of proving that the discriminatory animus behind the recommendation caused the discharge is under the cat's paw theory. This theory provides that causation may be established if the plaintiff shows that the decision-maker followed the biased recommendation without independently investigating the complaint against the employee. In such a case, the recommender is using the decision-maker as a mere conduit, or "cat's paw" to give effect to the recommender's discriminatory animus."

In Roberson v Alltel, Justice Emilio Garza, again of the United States Court of Appeals:

"Roberson (the employee) also asserts that a cat's paw analysis should be applied to (the human resources manager)'s reduction-in-force decisions because she was influenced by others who harbored discriminatory animus. If the employee can demonstrate that others had influence or leverage over the official decision-maker, and thus were not ordinary co-workers, it is proper to impute their discriminatory attitudes to the formal decision-maker.

"To invoke the cat's paw analysis, Roberson must submit evidence sufficient to establish two conditions: (1) that a co-worker exhibited discriminatory animus, and (2) that the same co-worker "possessed leverage, or exerted influence, over the titular decision-maker."

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