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|"Cat's paw" theory allows
plaintiffs to get to a jury
Bledsoe v. TVA Bd of
Directors (6th Cir 07/27/2022)
Sent to Custom
Alerts™ subscribers on 07/29/2022
Buttigieg (7th Cir 07/28/2022)
Sent to Custom Alerts™
subscribers on 07/31/2022
Two recent federal Circuit Court
cases illustrate how an employee claiming discrimination can get
to a jury by using the "cat's paw" theory.
In a classic
cat's paw case, there is a final decision-maker who has no
discriminatory motive. However that decision-maker was tricked
into making the decision by a lower level person who does have a
discriminatory motive. For example, a supervisor who doesn't like
older workers wants an employee fired, but lacks the authority to
do that. So the supervisor fabricates or exaggerates disciplinary
write-ups and sends them to a higher manager with the
recommendation to fire the employee. The manager makes the
decision with no discriminatory intent, yet the employer can still
6th Circuit case
Bledsoe alleged his employer discriminated against him based on
his age and disability in violation of the Age Discrimination in
Employment Act (ADEA) and the Rehabilitation Act. A committee
overseeing the employer's training center voted to demote Bledsoe
from his instructor position, citing ethical concerns that arose
when Bledsoe's son was accepted into the training program that
One of the members of the four-person
committee, Bledsoe's supervisor, had repeatedly berated Bledsoe
about his disability and pressured him to retire in the months
prior to the committee's decision. However, there was no
indication that the other committee members had any discriminatory
The 6th Circuit applied the "cat's paw" theory,
explaining that Bledsoe had to show that his supervisor "was the
driving force" behind the committee's decision to demote him.
There was evidence that could show that the other three committee
members were intimidated by the supervisor or otherwise were
influenced by him. Thus, a reasonable jury could conclude that
Bledsoe's supervisor used the ethical concern as a pretext to
convince the other members of the committee to demote him.
It's noteworthy that one judge dissented on the ground that the
evidence was insufficient to show that the supervisor manipulated
all three of his colleagues on the committee.
Alice Huff alleged her former
employer violated Title VII by retaliating against her for filing
a complaint of religious discrimination. Huff had filed an EEO
complaint following her religious objection to attending
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings under a rehabilitation plan for her
arrest for driving while intoxicated. Huff specifically named
Wright, an employee responsible for overseeing her rehabilitation
plan. The employer eventually removed Huff from her position for
failure to follow the proper procedures for seeking medication
approvals under her plan.
Wright lacked actual authority
to fire Huff, and the employer showed that there were independent
assessments by other staff members, which the employer argued
should insulate the employer from any animus on Wright's part.
The court found enough evidence that Wright was the proximate
cause of Huff's termination for this case to go to a jury. The
evidence was: (A) Wright retaliated against Huff by proposing and
drafting a noncompliance memo; (B) Wright proximately caused the
noncompliance memo to be issued, despite her lack of authority to
do so; (C) the proposed termination automatically and foreseeably
followed the noncompliance memo; and (D) Huff's termination
automatically and foreseeably followed the proposed removal. Thus,
a reasonable jury could conclude that retaliatory animus
influenced Wright's decision-making and proximately caused Huff's
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