The Cat’s Paw Theory of Discrimination: Unveiling Hidden Biases

On June 21, 2023, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Adams v. Schneider Electric USA, Inc., addressing the so-called “Cat’s Paw” theory of liability. In reversing summary judgment originally granted in favor of the employer Schneider Electric, the SJC concluded that an employer can still violate the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, G.L. c. 151B, where there is evidence that a manager, instructed to lay off employees, furthered a discriminatory corporate policy without even knowing it. The concept, adopted by the SJC, is often referred to as the “Cat’s Paw” theory of discrimination.

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-year-old 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 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 decision-maker 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 employment decisions.

To avoid falling victim to this theory, the following are a few strategies to consider:

Promote awareness. Encourage open dialogue and education surrounding biases, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Implement unbiased evaluation processes. Ensure that decision-makers critically evaluate information from various sources, conduct independent investigations, and recognize the potential for hidden biases.

Encourage 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 retaliation.

Training programs. Regularly conduct discrimination training programs to raise awareness and promote a culture of equality and respect.


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