What is the “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Liability When it Comes to Retaliation?

Just like any community, the workplace is subject to conflict.  Places of employment can be subject to strife based on differences of opinion, unreturned romantic interest, and racial prejudices. It can be difficult for employers to tease out legitimate discrimination claims from those manufactured to sabotage a co-worker.  Employers are advised to exercise caution with employee complaints to avoid being burned by the Cat’s Paw theory of liability.

What Is the Cat’s Paw Theory of Liability?

The Cat’s Paw theory of liability is based on the fable in which a monkey tricks a cat into pulling chestnuts from a fire. The monkey ends up taking off with the chestnuts unharmed, while the cat is left nursing his burnt paws.  So, how does this apply to employment law?

Vicarious liability is at play here, which means an employer can legally be held liable for the discriminatory and retaliatory acts of its employees. This scenario can occur when a subordinate employee (employee A) has an unlawful bias against another employee (employee B).  Employee B seeks to influence the actions of a decision maker, such as a supervisor or a manager. The decision maker ends up taking adverse action against employee A without realizing that this action was influenced by employee B’s bias.

An Example of Cat’s Paw Theory of Liability

One such case involves a female EMT who was receiving unwanted romantic overtures and vulgar text messages from a male coworker.  She complained to HR who investigated, but did not review the text messages, even though they were made available.

The male co-worker, aware of the complaint, created new fake messages, with doctored suggestive pictures, that made it appear the female EMT welcomed his advances and wanted a relationship.  The female denied this and again offered her coworker’s text messages as evidence of the harassment.

The HR department declined to review the female EMT’s evidence and instead fired her for acts of sexual harassment alleged by the male coworker.  The female plaintiff sued the company, but the case was dismissed on the basis that the employer was not responsible for the coworker’s retaliation.

On appeal, a higher court reversed the dismissal based on the Cat’s Paw theory of liability.  Even though the employer (in this case, the Human Resources department) did not have retaliatory intent, it was influenced and took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff based on the bias of the male coworker, who sought to retaliate against the woman who spurned his advances and reported him for harassment.

The negligent employer was held liable under the Cat’s Paw theory for several reasons.  First, the employer failed to adequately investigate the female plaintiff’s initial complaint and did not review the evidence, even though it was readily available.  Next, the employer accepted the male coworker’s fabricated texts as authentic evidence against the plaintiff, even though they were not credible.  Finally, the action taken by the employer was based solely on the male coworker’s version of events and his doctored photos.  The male defendant was initially successful in causing the employer (the cat) to grab the chestnuts (terminate the female plaintiff).  In the end, it is the employer who got burned.

Independent Investigations May Prevent Cat’s Paw Liability

The success of the Cat’s Paw liability theory means the employer will be held to a high standard when it comes to workplace investigations. While employers may want to immediately enforce rules and discipline employees when accusations are made, it’s best to step back and ensure that a thorough, independent workplace investigation is conducted.  This type of investigation disconnects the retaliatory motive from the adverse employment action so that the “Cat’s Paw theory” does not apply.

Contact Our Frisco Employment Law Attorneys Today

Allegations of harassment, retaliation, and misconduct must be taken seriously.  The Cat’s Paw theory of liability is complex and adds another layer to these already complicated issues for employers.  If you need help creating policies/procedures for handling employee complaints, or with independent workplace investigations, or representation in any employment law matter, the attorneys at Simon Paschal can help.  Call (972) 893-9340 or complete the online form to schedule a consultation.

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