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May 3, 2011

What is the “Cat’s Paw” Doctrine?

Filed under: Discipline & Termination,General HR Buzz9:26 am

Have you been wondering what all the discussion about “cat’s paw” is about?  The principle was relatively unknown in HR circles until a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, addressing for the first time the “cat’s paw” doctrine of employer liability in discrimination cases. Under the cat’s paw doctrine, an employee seeks to hold his employer liable based on the discriminatory intent of a supervisor who was not responsible for making the ultimate employment decision. 

In the Staub case, Staub was terminated by the HR manager based on information provided by a direct supervisor and next-level manager who both were hostile to Staub’s military service.

The “cat’s paw” name comes from a fable in which a monkey persuades a cat to steal nuts from a fire.  Once the cat gets the nuts out, the monkey snatches them.  Today, the term “cat’s paw” is generally used to describe a person who is manipulated by another to accomplish his purposes.  

In the employment discrimination context, “cat’s paw” refers to a situation in which a biased lower level supervisor, who lacks decision-making power, uses the formal decision maker in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action.  

To avoid an adverse ruling based on the cat’s paw doctrine, the employer must show that the adverse action was taken based wholly on information unrelated to the supervisor’s account.

Advice to HR professionals:  do not rely on a supervisor’s account of events.  Conduct a full, objective investigation before taking an adverse employment action.  You must ensure that there is enough independent evidence apart from a supervisor’s word to warrant the adverse action.

Source:  Bracewell & Giuliani LLP


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