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What Is “Cat’s Paw” Discrimination?

There are multiple ways to discriminate against someone. Some of the most insidious ways are when innocent actors are manipulated into acting in a discriminatory way. This is referred to as ‘cat’s paw’ discrimination, because a ‘cat’s paw’ with no bad intentions is positioned into the bad act, leaving the person with discriminatory intent in the proverbial clear. It is possible to hold people accountable for this unethical behavior, however, especially if you have a knowledgeable attorney on your side.

Staub Changed The Doctrine

Historically, courts would only hold an employer liable for a discriminatory firing or adverse employment action if a biased supervisor had “singular influence” over the decision. In other words, the malicious supervisor had to have been the specific moving force behind the plaintiff’s negative employment action. If someone else with no documented history of hostility or poor behavior toward the disciplined employee actually did the terminating, the employee had no recourse, because there was no demonstrable malice in their employer’s action.

This changed in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Staub v Proctor Hospital (2011). The court held that a hospital technician who was also an Army reservist had a valid claim for discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) after the VP of Human Resources terminated his employment upon a biased recommendation from an anti-military direct supervisor of Staub’s. The Court held that if membership in a particular group is a “motivating factor” in adverse employment action, regardless of who actually carries it out, the action is discriminatory.

Extending Staub

Most of the time, cases like Staub that are decided under a specific law like USERRA are limited in their application to interpret other laws. However, the Supreme Court’s choice of words opens the door for Staub to be applied to cat’s paw cases under other employment discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII states that an “unlawful employment practice” can be identified when a plaintiff is able to demonstrate that any of the suspect grounds (race, religion, gender, color or national origin) “was a motivating factor” in that practice. Using that language in the Staub opinion deliberately and explicitly links it to laws like Title VII.

It is important to note that the malicious actions of non-supervisors are on much less firm legal ground. This is because, in theory, employees of the same rank as a plaintiff have much less input on hiring and firing than a supervisor would. However, the fact that the issue is unclear should not be taken as a reason to shy away from filing a claim if you believe you have been mistreated. Contacting an experienced attorney is a good idea in this kind of situation, so you can assess your chances with someone who knows the system.

Get Legal Help Today

The idea of cat’s paw discrimination can sound complex on paper. In reality, it is just another discrimination claim. And discrimination should be called out, regardless of how many steps it may take to do so. If you have questions or concerns about possible cat’s paw discrimination, attorney A. Christopher Potts can work to assist you as best he can. Contact the firm of Hitchcock & Potts today to schedule an appointment.

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