Last June, the SJC issued its decision in Adams v. Schneider Electric USA, Inc., addressing the so-called “Cat’s Paw” theory of liability. In reversing
The term "Cat's Paw" originates
from an Aesop fable, in which a monkey convinces a cat to snatch roasting
chestnuts from a fire. The cat obliges, but the hot chestnuts burn its paws
while the monkey enjoys the rewards. In the context of discrimination, the
Cat's Paw Theory refers to a situation where a biased individual, the
"monkey," uses another individual, the "cat," as a mere
instrument to advance their discriminatory agenda. In the employment context,
the Cat's Paw Theory often arises when a decision-maker relies on the
recommendations or information provided by a biased employee or supervisor
without conducting an independent evaluation. This biased individual,
consciously or unconsciously, influences the decision-making process, leading
to discriminatory outcomes. The decision-maker may be oblivious to the
underlying prejudice, effectively becoming the "cat" that carries out
the biased individual's wishes.
Adams concerned a claim of age
discrimination brought by a laid off 54-yearold employee of Schneider Electric.
The trial judge allowed Schneider Electric’s motion for summary judgment,
holding that because the plaintiff acknowledged that his direct manager, the
individual who directly made the termination decision, harbored no discriminatory
animus towards him that the company could not be liable. The SJC disagreed and
concluded that the manager’s direct knowledge of the company’s alleged
discriminatory motives was unnecessary, reasoning that an innocent
decisionmaker can nonetheless further a discriminatory corporate purpose set in
motion by those above him.
The Cat's Paw Theory and the SJC’s
decision in Adams serves as a critical legal doctrine to combat hidden
biases and hold employers accountable for discriminatory practices. It
recognizes that discriminatory intent can exist through the actions of an
intermediary or by proxy, rather than explicitly emanating from the ultimate
decision-maker. By acknowledging the influence of biased individuals within
organizational hierarchies, this theory emphasizes the need for employers to be
vigilant in evaluating the sources of information and recommendations that impact
To avoid falling
victim to this theory, the following are a few strategies to consider:
awareness: Encourage open dialogue and education surrounding biases,
stereotypes, and discrimination.
unbiased evaluation processes: Ensure that decision-makers critically evaluate
information from various sources, conduct independent investigations, and
recognize the potential for hidden biases.
reporting mechanisms: Establish channels for employees to report instances of
discrimination, harassment, or biased decision-making. Creating a safe and
confidential environment enables individuals to come forward without fear of
programs: Regularly conduct discrimination training programs to raise awareness
and promote a culture of equality and respect.
A partner at
Rudolph Friedmann LLP, Adam is an
experienced employment attorney who has counseled and litigated all aspects of
the employment relationship. For the past five years, Adam was selected to the
Massachusetts Super Lawyers Rising Star list for employment litigation, an
award recognizing the top 2.5% of attorneys under the age of 40 in
Massachusetts. Adam’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.