USERRA and the cat’s paw

Raise your hand if you know what a cat’s paw has to do with USERRA.  Liar.

The term “cat’s paw” comes from an old fable in which a monkey tricks a cat into stealing chestnuts that are roasting on a fire.  Even though the monkey didn’t steal the chestnuts it still caused the event – but the cat’s the one left with burnt paws.

A case heard by the Supreme Court was concerned with whether or not an employer could be held liable for employment discrimination based on the ill will of an employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

The court found that “cat’s paw” can find an employer liable for discrimination if:

  • a supervisor performs an act motivated by discriminatory animus (click for definition – I had no clue either) that is intended to cause an adverse employment action and
  • that act is a very near cause of the ultimate employment action.

Though this groundbreaking case was under USERRA, expect “cat’s paw” theories of liability to be used in Title VII claims, as well.

The moral of the story:  if you’re considering a supervisor’s recommendation of adverse action against an employee, and that employee is alleging discriminatory motives, be sure to conduct a thorough, and independent investigation prior to taking any adverse actions.


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