No, this is not a review of a 70’s B movie. The Supreme Court has agreed to review a case concerning the “cat’s paw” theory of discrimination liability. The case, Staub v. Proctor Hosp. (7th Cir. 3/25/09) [pdf], involves the termination of an army reservist who claims discrimination based on his association with the military under USERRA.
Here’s how the 7th Circuit eloquently described the origins of the “cat’s paw”:
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.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1976).
In discrimination cases, the “cat’s paw” refers to a decision maker who lacks an unlawful bias, but who bases the adverse employment decision on the influence of another with such a bias. The Staub court described its interpretation of the “cat’s paw”:
[W]here an employee without formal authority to materially alter the terms and conditions of a plaintiff’s employment nonetheless uses her “singular influence” over an employee who does have such power to harm the plaintiff for racial reasons, the actions of the employee without formal authority are imputed to the employer….
[W]here a decision maker is not wholly dependent on a single source of information, but instead conducts its own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision, the employer is not liable for an employee’s submission of misinformation to the decision maker.
It is likely that the cat’s paw will survive the Supreme Court’s review in one form or another. It is unclear, though, whether the Court will sanction Staub’s employer-friendly “singular influence” standard as the standard-bearing definition of the cat’s paw.
Nevertheless, as long as cat’s paw liability is a valid theory of discrimination, it is imperative that decision makers verify the information upon which they rely. Unless the decision maker has first-hand knowledge of the reasons justifying the action, he or she should undertake some investigation and independently verify that the decision is the result of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason and not an unlawful animus.