Under what’s called the Cat’s Paw Theory, employers can’t defend themselves against employment discrimination claims by saying they didn’t know a supervisor was biased.
The theory was first introduced in Shager v. Upjohn, a 1990 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The judge used an old fable, The Monkey and the Cat, to describe situations in which a corporate decision-maker innocently makes an adverse employment decision based on a lower-level employee’s discriminatory recommendation.
In the fable, a cunning monkey flatters a cat into retrieving chestnuts from a fire. The cat singes its paws, and the monkey takes off with the chestnuts. The cat gets nothing but grief from the transaction.
In an employment law context, the cat is often an HR professional who acts on the recommendation of a supervisor (the monkey) who is motivated by discrimination to fire or discipline an employee. Under the Cat’s Paw Theory, the employer is liable when that happens.
Lesson: Never take at face value a supervisor’s disciplinary recommendation. Find out exactly why he or she wants to act against the employee. Make sure there is documentation to support the decision.