On August 29, 2016, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit revived a retaliation lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under the “cat’s paw” theory of liability. In Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., et al. (Case No. 15-3239), the Second Circuit held that an employer may be held liable under a cat’s paw theory of liability for an employee’s animus, regardless of the employee’s role within the organization, if the employer’s own negligence gives effect to that animus and causes the victim to suffer an adverse employment action. The decision brings the Second Circuit in line with several of its sister circuits in Fapplying the cat’s paw theory of liability in Title VII retaliation claims, including the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals.
The cat’s paw theory of liability derives its name from one of Aesop’s fables, where a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts from a fire where they are being roasted, promising him a share. As the cat removes the chestnuts – and in the process burning his paw – the monkey eats the nuts, leaving the cat with no food and a burnt paw. The cat was duped by the monkey, who benefited from the pains suffered by the cat. Cat’s paw liability now refers “to a situation in which an employee is fired or subjected to some other adverse employment action by a supervisor who himself has no discriminatory motive and intended to bring about the adverse employment action.” Because the supervisor, acting as an agent of the employer, has allowed themselves to be used “as the conduit of [the subordinate’s] prejudice,” the prejudice may be imputed to the employer.
In this case, the plaintiff, Andrea Vasquez, was employed by Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., as an EMT on an ambulance crew. Another Empress employee, Tyrell Gray, a dispatcher, frequently made romantic gestures and overtures to Vasquez, which she rejected. Gray also sent Vasquez a sexually explicit image via text message on work time. When Vasquez returned to the office from her shift, she notified her supervisor and began to prepare a formal complaint. Before Vasquez was able to finalize her complaint and meet with her supervisor and union representative, Gray began fabricating evidence that he and Vasquez had been involved in a consensual sexual relationship, asking a fellow co-worker to lie and doctoring text messages, which he provided to Empress to corroborate his fabricated story.
When Vasquez met with Empress and her union representative, a member of Human Resources stated that Empress had already reviewed Gray’s “evidence” and had concluded that she was having “an inappropriate sexual relationship” with him. Vasquez denied the allegations and asked to see the “evidence,” but she was not permitted to do so. Vasquez offered to show Empress her own cell phone to disprove the doctored text message history provided by Gray, but Empress declined the opportunity and terminated Vasquez for engaging in sexual harassment.
In reversing the District Court’s dismissal of the Complaint, the Second Circuit expressly adopted the cat’s paw theory of liability and addressed a second issue left open by prior case law: whether the cat’s paw approach would render an employer responsible for the animus of a co-worker, rather than a supervisor. The Second Circuit answered the question in the affirmative, applying general principles of agency law, and found that Vasquez could recover against Empress if she can show that Empress itself was negligent in relying on the discriminatory or retaliatory animus of a low-level, non-supervisory co-worker’s false allegations in making its decision to terminate her. Thus, the employer’s own negligence would provide an “independent basis” to treat the non-supervisory co-worker as an agent and hold the employer liable. The Court also cautioned that this approach will not make an employer liable “simply because it acts on information provided by a biased co-worker.” Rather, it is only when the employer “in effect adopts an employee’s unlawful animus by acting negligently with respect to the information provided by the employee [. . .]” that the animus could be imputed to the employer.
Following the Second Circuit’s decision, employers must be vigilant in how they handle accusations and information received by employees, regardless of their level within the organization and evaluate whether or not the employee has a retaliatory motive or other animus against their co-worker. Once an accusation has been made, employers must conduct a thorough and good faith investigation into the allegations to ensure that the employer is not acting on false or misleading information provided by an employee with an agenda. Employers must keep an open mind and maintain impartiality. Failure to do so will impute an employee’s retaliatory intent to the employer to support a claim under Title VII under the cat’s paw doctrine. Employers should consult with counsel to evaluate their employment and investigation policies to ensure conformity with this ruling.