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Does the Cat's Paw Theory Apply to Several Levels of Supervision?


Employment discrimination lawyers are familiar with the term “cat’s paw” as it relates to the discriminatory decisions made by employers, but what does it actually mean? The cat’s paw theory is named for the fable in which a monkey persuades a cat to retrieve chestnuts from a hot fire. Of course, the cat burns his paw pulling the chestnuts from the fire, while the monkey grabs them up for himself, leaving the cat with none. In employment discrimination, the cat’s paw theory refers to the biased subordinate who, lacking decision-making authority, uses a formal decision maker as the scapegoat for the discriminatory actions. Court’s usually do not fall for this ruse in most gender and race discrimination cases and, in a recent decision, the court determined that the theory applies in FMLA cases, as well.

Demotion allegedly based on FMLA leave

The plaintiff, Gloria Marshall, was a workers’ compensation analyst for Rawlings Co., LLC. In 2011, she was promoted to team leader. However, due to depression, anxiety, and PTSD, she needed to take FMLA leave in March of 2012. One of Marshall’s supervisors, Bradshaw, allegedly began making sarcastic comments about her taking FLMA leave. He soon after recommended to the President of the Division that Marshall’s performance was unsatisfactory, and she should be demoted. Without conducting an independent investigation into Marshall’s performance issues, the President approved her demotion.

Facts leading to termination

During the meeting where her supervisors, Bradshaw and Elsner, informed Marshall she was being demoted, Bradshaw again made comments about her taking FMLA leave while raising his voice and demeaning her. Marshall took intermittent FMLA leave from March through August of 2013. Bradshaw continued to bully and harass her.

In September of 2013, her supervisor Elsner counseled Marshall about her productivity because she had not been at her desk for a long time. Marshall informed Elsner that her other supervisor, Bradshaw, had been harassing her, but she had been too afraid to report it for fear of losing her job. Marshall’s supervisors discussed the harassment allegations with the president. After the meeting, the president determined that Marshall’s claims of harassment were unfounded.

The president then discussed the issue with the owner of the company who ultimately decided to terminate Marshall for making false allegations of harassment. The owner stated that he was unaware that Marshall had taken FMLA leave at the time he made the decision to terminate her.

Does Cat’s Paw apply to more than one layer of supervision?

The answer to this question is yes. In situations like Marshall’s, where there are multiple layers of supervision that are manipulated, cat’s paw can still apply. Marshall’s lower level supervisors influenced the intermediate supervisor who adopted their bias without independent investigation. He then influenced the owner of the company to take adverse action. The court determined that “there is no reason to forbid plaintiffs from pursuing a theory that a lower-level supervisor carried out a scheme to discriminate by influencing multiple layers of higher-level supervision.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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