Wednesday Federal Employment Law Update- The Cat’s Paw Theory Revisited

I have to say I’m not a cat person, but that pic does get an “awwwwwwww” out of me!  Welcome back for another Federal Employment Law update!  Back in March, we blogged about a discrimination case involving in part, an attempted application of the cat’s paw theory of discrimination.  Well the paw is back!

Last week, the Tenth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the case of Simmons v. Sykes Enterprises, Inc., 2011 WL 2151105 (10th Cir. June 2, 2011).  Plaintiff worked as a phone technician.  In June 2007, Plaintiff alleges that her direct supervisor and her local HR supervisor made some ageist comments toward and about her.   Plaintiff was 62 years old. 

Two months later, another employee complained to HR that her confidential medical information was circulated about the office.  Plaintiff’s supervisor, and local HR representative worked in conjunction with Defendant’s corporate counsel and regional HR representative to investigate the incident.  At the close of the investigation, it was determined that Plaintiff was the primary culprit, disclosing the information to another HR associated, who disseminated it even farther.  Plaintiff and the HR associate, 23 years old, were both terminated.  Plaintiff sued for wrongful termination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The trial court granted summary judgment after Plaintiff was unable to prove that Defendant’s proffered reason for termination, its belief that Plaintiff disseminated another employee’s confidential medical information, was a pretext for age discrimination. 

On appeal, The 10th Circuit affirmed after analyzing several angles.  First, the appellate court correctly ruled that whether or not Plaintiff actually had disseminated the information was irrelevant, but rather the only relevant point was that the Defendant believed in good faith that she did.  In other words, courts are not employed to sit as “super-personnel” departments to evaluate an employer’s personnel decisions.  

Second, the 10th Circuit evaluated Plaintiff’s “cat’s paw” argument, which claimed that Plaintiff’s supervisor and local HR representative, motivated by their bias against older employees, used their influence to impact the decision to terminate her.  The Tenth Circuit rejected the claim, distinguishing Plaintiff’s legal authority by noting a difference in language between the ADEA and Title VII.  Whereas Title VII requires the plaintiff’s protected class to merely be a “motivating factor” in the adverse employment decision, the ADEA requires that, “but for” the discriminatory animus, the employment action would not have been taken.  The court held that Plaintiff could not meet this higher threshold with her marginal cat’s paw evidence.    

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One Comment on “Wednesday Federal Employment Law Update- The Cat’s Paw Theory Revisited”

  1. ashley Says:

    Is there any way I can find out who owns the rights to that photo? I would like to use it.


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