Sep 03, 2015

Discrimination claims under the cat’s paw

The term “cat’s paw” derives from one of Aesop’s Fables about a monkey and a cat from the 17th century. In the fable the monkey tricks a cat into stealing chestnuts from a fire causing the cat’s paws to burn. While the cat’s paws are burning the monkey runs away with the chestnuts. Courts have used this fable as a metaphor to describe situations where a non-decision- making employee with discriminatory motives, or the monkey, influences the actual decision maker, or the cat, to take adverse employment action against an employee.

In a decision issued on August 13, 2015, the Seventh Circuit cited the cat’s paw theory holding that a former laboratory employee of Polaris Laboratories, LLC (Polaris) presented sufficient evidence to preserve her racial discrimination and retaliation claims against Polaris. 

The case was filed by Ms. Miller, who worked for Polaris as a lab technician. During her employment, the reports of Ms. Miller’s daily productivity were frequently below the required quota. Eventually her employment was terminated allegedly for poor performance. Ms. Miller filed suit alleging that the purported reason for her termination, poor performance, was a pretext for racial discrimination and retaliation. Ms. Miller presented testimony of racially derogatory language being used at work and that Ms. Miller’s co-workers intentionally shuffled samples in an effort to slow down her performance and undermine her ability to perform her work. Based on this, Ms. Miller alleged, her supervisors erroneously terminated her employment for poor performance.

Citing to this evidence, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court holding that there was a genuine issue of fact under the cat’s paw method that actions of Ms. Miller’s co-workers—though not decision makers—were motivated by racial animus and proximately caused her Polaris’ decision makers to terminate her employment. 

Employers must be cautious when reviewing employee performance and to monitor employee interactions to avoid unwittingly being the cat’s paw. 

This Chuhak & Tecson, P.C. communication is intended only to provide information regarding developments in the law and information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute advice regarding legal problems and should not be relied upon as such. 

Client alert authored by: 
Ryan A. Haas