Employment Law and the “Cat’s Paw” Theory of Liability

In a recent decision, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court summary judgment for the Defendant employer in a case in which the Plaintiff asserted what is known as the “cat’s paw” theory of liability.  Under this theory, where an employer takes adverse action against an employee (i.e. termination or discipline), even for a valid reason, it may still be held liable if the information used by the employer was obtained based on a discriminatory or retaliatory motive. 

In Ameen v. Amphenol Printed Circuits, Inc., decided on January 26, 2015, the Plaintiff had been terminated for falsifying his timecards that resulted in his taking extended lunches and getting paid for extra time when he was not working.  These violations were reported to an upper-level manager by two of the Plaintiff’s supervisors who had been alerted to the situation by two co-workers.  The Plaintiff was subsequently fired, and he filed suit arguing that he was targeted because the supervisors had resented him for previously taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.  He relied on Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct. 1186 (2011) in arguing that an employer can still be liable even if the information reported by those allegedly having a discriminatory or retaliatory animus is true.  That argument was contrary to the 1st Circuit’s decision in Cariglia v. Hertz Equip. Rental Corp., 363 F.3d 77, 83 (1st Cir. 2004) that requires the information provided to a decision-maker be “inaccurate, misleading or incomplete.”  The Ameen Court refrained from trying to reconcile these two inconsistent standards because it felt the Plaintiff had failed to prove the necessary first step that those who reported the timecard violations had a discriminatory or retaliatory animus.  His only evidence was that he was reported while others were not.

While the decision in Ameen failed to clarify whether an employer could still be liable where the information reported to a decision-maker were true, complete, and accurate, it highlights an interesting issue in employment law.  The Court did not strike down or fail to recognize the “cat’s paw” theory of liability in Massachusetts, rather it found that the Plaintiff did not prove it in this case.  It also serves as a reminder that while an employer cannot enforce its rules in a discriminatory or retaliatory manner to its workforce, an employee’s membership in a protected class does not provide full immunity from adverse action.  Understanding and balancing those two concepts can be the difference between having a winning case and a losing one. 

If you feel you have been the target of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, we would like to hear from you to help you determine if you have a valid claim.