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

In an interesting opinion on age discrimination, Adams v. Schneider Electric USA, the Supreme Judicial Court utilized an old fable in explaining how courts are to apply the “cat’s paw” theory of liability in employment discrimination cases.

Here, the plaintiff was fifty-four years old when he was laid off in a reduction in force. The plaintiff provided evidence that officials in the company, including human resources executives, sought to increase age diversity and gradually reduce the number of older employees. The manager who decided to lay off the plaintiff, however, claimed that he selected the plaintiff for lay off because he spent most of his time working for other divisions in the company and therefore laying him off would have less of an impact overall.

G.L. c. 151B, § 4(1B & 1C) prohibits employers from discharging an employee based on age over forty. A successful claim of employment discrimination requires a plaintiff to show that they are a member of a protected class, they were subject to an adverse employment action, the employer possessed discriminatory animus in taking the action, and the animus was the reason for the adverse action.

At summary judgment, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the employer, on the basis that comments suggesting the presence of age discrimination were made by other officials in the company, but not the manager who conducted the layoff. The judge also concluded that the plaintiff could not show that the manager’s offered justification for the termination was pretextual.

The Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s decision because the plaintiff could show pretext on two bases: 1) that the individual responsible for deciding who to lay off was an “innocent pawn” of a discriminatory corporate strategy, and 2) that the individual responsible for the layoff did act with age-based animus but provided a falsified justification for the action.

In affirming the decision of the Appeals Court, the SJC explored the cat’s paw theory of liability, which relates to the first basis outlined by the Appeals Court. As described by the SJC, under the cat’s paw theory, a manager can essentially function as an innocent pawn in following directions to lay off employees in a manner that furthers a discriminatory corporate policy. The “cat’s paw” theory derives from a fable in which a cat is duped by a monkey to roast chestnuts, which the monkey then steals, leaving the cat with a burned paw and no chestnuts. Applying the fable to facts of the case, it is immaterial whether the manager knew of a discriminatory corporate strategy specifically to lay off older employees to hire younger employees. “[I]f executives at the company targeted [a specific] group for layoffs in the first place because of the age of the employees in that group, even if [the manager] himself was ignorant of the larger scheme when he selected individual employees for termination” a jury could determine that the layoff was unlawful.


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