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

“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

 Employers are advised to document the job performance of their employees. The documentation of job performance is particularly important when an employer is accusing an employee of poor job performance.  Write-ups and negative job performance evaluations can justify adverse actions, such as, denial of promotion, demotion, or termination.

However, unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations may be evidence of discrimination and retaliation.  A careful examination of the personnel file portrays an employee who goes from being Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde: a good employee suddenly becomes a bad employee.  This can raise suspicion and expose an employer to liability.

“Papering” occurs when an employer deliberately packs an employee’s personnel file with unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations in order to justify an adverse action.  For instance, an employer can “paper” an employee’s personnel file by the following methods:

  • An employer may hold the employee to a higher standard than “similarly situated employees”.
  • An employer may scrutinize an employee.
  • An employer may singled out the employee for criticism or disciplinary action.
  • An employer may create a hostile work environment that interferes with the employee’s ability to perform their job.
  • An employer may solicit criticism of the employee from their co-workers and supervisors.
  • An employer may incite the employee’s co-workers and supervisors against them.
  • An employer may deliberately give the employee false write-ups and negative job performance evaluations.

Employers can use “papering” to cover-up discrimination and retaliation. Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”); Etefia v. East Baltimore Cmty. Corp., 2 F.Supp. 751 (D. Md. 1998) (the court determined that the issue of whether documentation of the employee’s job difficulties was part of a plan to terminate him based on discrimination precluded summary judgment.)

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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