Workers can sue for ‘cat’s paw’ discrimination

In an old French fable, a sneaky monkey talks an unwary cat into grabbing roasting chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns its paw and drops the chestnuts, and the monkey walks off with them.

From this fable comes the phrase “cat’s paw,” meaning an innocent person who’s used as a tool for someone else’s dirty work.

In the employment world, a “cat’s paw” situation is one where a supervisor is prejudiced against a worker, but rather than firing the worker for an illegal reason, he or she persuades a higher-up manager to fire the worker for some trumped-up but legitimate-sounding reason.

This raises the question of whether a worker who is the victim of such a scheme can sue the company for discrimination…even though the person who actually made the firing decision had no intent to discriminate.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed such a claim.

In that case, a hospital terminated an Army reservist for a series of minor infractions. The reservist claimed that his immediate supervisors, who resented his military service, drummed up and fabricated these infractions to persuade the hospital management to fire him.

The Court ruled that the hospital could be held liable for discrimination.

The Court was applying a law that covers discrimination against the military, but it seems likely that the same idea would apply to any other type of discrimination.

For instance, a federal appeals court in Chicago recently allowed a white city worker who was fired by a white upper-level manager to sue. The worker claimed that her black direct supervisor was prejudiced against whites, and had used the white upper-level manager as a “cat’s paw” to get rid of her.

In general, employers should make sure that all supervisors receive training about discrimination laws, and should never simply sign off on a manager’s report about a worker without investigating the facts and considering the possibility that a supervisor may have other motives.