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What’s the “Cat’s Paw” theory of liability for discrimination?

On Behalf of | Jul 26, 2023 | Business Law

There’s an old fable about a sneaky monkey that convinces a too-trusting cat to grab some chestnuts out of a fire. Predictably, the cat gets a burned paw, and the monkey feasts on the chestnuts.

What’s this story have to do with your business operations? Well, if you’re duped like the cat into doing something foolish by someone else, you can end up being the one who gets burned – particularly when it comes to acts of discrimination.

Your honest (but mistaken) belief isn’t a bullet-proof defense

There are many situations where an employer’s honest but mistaken belief may be a defense, but discrimination isn’t one of them. Imagine, for a moment, that the following scenario happens:

  • You have an employee who is a member of a religion that’s a minority in your area.
  • Your employee has a supervisor who is prejudiced against members of that religion.
  • The supervisor is good friends with the director of human resources.
  • Out of discrimination, the supervisor blatantly makes up complaints about the minority employee for the sole purpose of trying to oust them from the company and tells their friend in human resources.
  • Eventually, the director of human resources, having no reason to suspect they were being manipulated by their trusted friend and a valued supervisor, demotes or fires the targeted employee.

Is your company free from a discrimination claim simply because the person who actually took action against the affected employee was acting in good faith, without any discriminatory attempt on their part? Not at all.

A Supreme Court ruling held that the actions and motivations of employees can be imputed to their employer in situations like these, as long as the discriminatory supervisor’s words or input was a factor in the final employment decision that harmed the targeted employee.

For employers, this means that it pays to be cautious about relying on subjective statements by supervisors who may be acting on their conscious or subconscious biases. It also means that, if an employee denies the allegations against them and alleges discriminatory intentions by their superior, it may be wise to take a step back until you can secure in-depth and personalized legal guidance.