Beware vengeful boss’s shadowy retaliation

Even if someone else in the management hierarchy actually terminates an employee, a supervisor who’s seemingly had it in for the employee can still cause a world of legal headaches for the employer. This is the so-called “cat’s paw” legal theory, which holds that employers are liable if they approve a recommendation that is based on illegal motives such as retaliation.

Recent case: Sharlene Parker, who is black, worked as a special-education teacher at a correctional facility. When a white teacher was hired, Parker and another black teacher complained that management favored the new employee.

One day, Parker left her pager on her supervisor’s desk. When Parker called to ask if anyone had seen it, that supervisor allegedly said, “I’ll take care of it.”

Somehow the pager then found its way to an area accessible to prisoners and suddenly Parker was banned as a security risk. Her supervisor recommended termination. Upper management agreed without any investigation.

Parker sued, alleging retaliation.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said Parker should get her day in court. The court said it didn’t matter under the cat’s paw theory that management did the actual firing, only that the direct supervisor’s motive may have been retaliation. A jury will now decide. (Parker v. State of Louisiana, No. 08-30984, 5th Cir., 2009)

Final note:
If you are wondering what courts mean by “cat’s paw,” here’s the origin of the term: It comes from a French fable by Jean De LaFontaine (1621-1695) titled “The Monkey and the Cat,” in which a clever but unscrupulous monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts from a fire for the monkey to eat. The cat burns its paws, while the monkey enjoys the nuts. Apparently some expert in French literature and employment law married the two concepts to explain what happens when some third party manipulates a decision-maker into discriminating.