The Monkey and the Cat is an old fable in which a monkey tricks a cat into pulling chestnuts from a fire. As the cat’s paw burns, the monkey takes all the chestnuts, leaving the cat with nothing. Since its introduction in the 1600s, this fable has been used to describe the 'cat’s paw' theory in several contexts, including political and employment.
When it comes to employment law, the cat’s paw theory applies when a biased employee with no decision-making authority uses a supervisor as a ruse to trigger discriminatory employment action. For example, an employee who willingly does not do her work may tell a supervisor she was harassed by another employee to the point it made finishing work difficult. The supervisor would then scold the person or bring the issue to the attention of the employer, who could potentially terminate that employee for harassment. Under the cat’s paw, the employer could be held liable even with no evidence that he or she acted unfairly. The employer would thus be the cat, because that employer was tricked to rely on biased and untruthful reports that came from a supervisor of an employee who’s felt wronged. The employee using a supervisor to make claims would be the monkey from the tale.
Marshall v. Rawlings Co. LLC is the most well-known employment law case involving the cat’s paw theory. The case extended the theory’s application to the Family and Medical Leave Act. (FMLA). In February and March 2012, a Rawlings Company employee took FMLA leave to receive treatment for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Upon returning, the employee faced a backlog of work. It was never made clear whether she received assistance catching up, and when she finally did, her supervisor became worried when more work arose. By September that year, she was demoted after a supervisor’s recommendation. The president of Rawlings confirmed she made the final decision, based purely on the employee’s choice.
In September 2013, when the employee and another co-worker continuously left their desks for long periods of time, her supervisor confronted her. The employee claimed her other supervisor had harassed her terribly on two occasions - making it difficult for her to be motivated and remain at her desk. When she met with the president of Rawlings to discuss the allegations, he determined she was 'not doing her job, had been called out, and brought up harassment allegations to deflect it.' The president met with the owner, who ultimately decided to fire her based on 'false harassment allegations.'
Ultimately, the employee sued, asserting her employer ignored her rights under the FMLA and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After going through the court systems, a Sixth Circuit court determined the cat’s paw theory applied to this situation, and the previous court erred in granting summary judgment against the FMLA and ADA retaliation claims. While the final opinion of the Sixth Circuit court favored the employee on its face, the court also defended some of the employer's actions. This case determined an employer can’t be held liable if he or she can show real evidence a biased lower-level supervisor influenced the ultimate decision maker. It also concluded that if an in-depth investigation to claims is made, the portion of the cat paw’s theory that keeps employers liable even without evidence is negated.
In the end, the employee in the Marshall v. Rawlings Co. LLC case won. However, throughout the many layers of the case, the complexities of the FMLA, ADA, and cat’s paw theory were showcased.