Cat’s Paw Theory of Liability Applies In FMLA Cases


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that an employer may be held liable for Family and Medical Leave Act violations based on the cat’s paw theory of liability, meaning that the illegal animus of a non-decisionmaker influences the actual, non-biased decisionmaker.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this theory of liability in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, which was a case involving claims under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reremployment Rights Act. Federal courts then expanded this theory to apply to discrimination claims under federal antidiscrimination laws, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In Marshall v. Rawlings Co., the Sixth Circuit applied the theory to FMLA claims, joining several other sister circuits in so holding.

As in other contexts, employers can protect themselves from cat’s paw allegations in FMLA situations by ensuring that the actual decisionmaker does not blindly rely on the recommendations of or information from subordinates. Rather, he should conduct his own thoughtful and independent investigation and/or analysis of relevant information before making a decision that adversely affects an employee who intends to take or has taken FMLA leave, in order to ensure that the decision itself is unrelated to the employee’s rights under FMLA.