Supreme Court Upholds “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Liability

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On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, upholding a theory of employment discrimination liability generally referred to as the “cat’s paw” theory. Under the “cat’s paw” theory, an employer may remain liable for the discriminatory animus or intent of a biased supervisor, even if the biased supervisor was not the decision maker, if the employee shows that the employer’s decision was influenced by the biased supervisor.

The term “cat’s paw” derives from an Aesop fable put into verse by La Fontaine in 1679, which Judge Posner relied upon in a 1990 discrimination case. According to Judge Posner’s opinion, “[i]n 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.”

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