"Cat's Paw": The Forgotten Liability

Aug 01, 2023

In the world of employment law, there are many interesting concepts and legal theories. One such concept is "the cat's paw" theory of liability. If you're wondering what cats have to do with employment discrimination cases, you're not alone. In today's blog post, we explore what the "cat's paw" theory is, how it's applied in the context of employment discrimination, and why it's essential for both employers and employees to understand.

The Origin of the Cat's Paw Theory

The phrase "cat's paw" comes from a fable by Aesop that was later popularized by French poet Jean de La Fontaine. In the story, a monkey convinces a cat to pull chestnuts from a fire. The cat retrieves the chestnuts, burning its paw in the process, while the cunning monkey enjoys the chestnuts without getting harmed.

In an employment context, the cat's paw theory refers to a situation where a decision-maker in a company is influenced by another employee who has discriminatory bias, leading to an adverse employment decision (like termination or demotion) against another employee. The biased employee is the monkey, the decision-maker is the cat, and the chestnuts are the unfair employment actions.

Cat's Paw Liability in Employment Discrimination Cases

The cat's paw theory becomes particularly relevant in discrimination lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other federal laws protecting employees from workplace discrimination.

In a cat's paw case, the plaintiff seeks to hold an employer liable for the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced the decision-making process, even if the person who ultimately made the decision had no discriminatory intent.

In 2011, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Staub v. Proctor, affirmed the validity of the cat's paw theory in employment discrimination cases. It ruled that if a supervisor performs an act motivated by discriminatory bias that is intended to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA, a federal law protecting service members' employment rights.

Implications for Employers and Employees

For employers, understanding the cat's paw theory underscores the importance of training all employees, particularly those in supervisory roles, on the principles of non-discrimination and equal opportunity. It also highlights the need for a fair and unbiased investigation process in response to complaints of discrimination.

For employees, the cat's paw theory provides a route for establishing liability in discrimination cases, even when the ultimate decision-maker is unbiased. If they can prove that the real reason for their adverse employment action was a discriminatory motive from a person who influenced, but did not make, the final decision, they may succeed in their claim.


The cat's paw theory provides a unique lens through which to consider liability in employment discrimination cases. Navigating these complex legal landscapes requires expert guidance. As an employment discrimination plaintiff's law firm, we are well-equipped to help you understand and apply this theory in discrimination cases. We are committed to protecting employees' rights and ensuring fair practices in the workplace.

*Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.*

For more information, please contact our office to schedule a consultation. Together, we can work towards understanding and addressing employment discrimination effectively.