Supreme Court Holds That Company May Be Liable For The Discriminatory Motives Of Non-Decision Makers


On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer may be liable for the discriminatory motives of a supervisor who influences but does not make the ultimate employment decision. The Court’s ruling will impact employment discrimination claims where multiple individuals are claimed to have made, caused, or influenced the ultimate employment decision. Staub v. Proctor Hospital.

The Cat’s Paw Theory Of Liability

In employment discrimination claims, plaintiffs must establish that the employer took an adverse employment action based, in whole or in part, on their protected status, such as age, sex or religion among many others. Employees typically prove their claims by demonstrating that the ultimate decision maker had a discriminatory motive for the employment action. But where the ultimate decision maker is admittedly unbiased, several courts have allowed employees to use a subordinate bias or “cat’s paw” theory of liability to prove their claims.

The term “cat’s paw” derives from the 17th century fable of The Monkey and the Cat where a clever monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts from the fire by flattering the cat and promising to share the chestnuts. The unwitting cat burns its paws removing the chestnuts from the fire while the monkey sits back and eats all of the chestnuts. As in the fable, a biased supervisor can dupe an unbiased decision maker into taking an adverse employment action based on inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading information.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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