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"Cat's paw" theory allows discrimination
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

Huff v. 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 be liable.

6th Circuit case

Robert 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 Bledsoe taught.

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 animus.

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.

7th Circuit case

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 termination.

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