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“Cat’s Paw” Liability Theory Applies to FMLA Retaliation Claims

On Behalf of | Jul 27, 2017 |

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Marshall v. The Rawlings Company LLC, has issued a ruling that confirms the “cat’s paw” is a valid theory of liability for FMLA retaliation or interference claims.

Background. Under the cat’s paw theory of liability, an employer may be liable when a supervisor who lacks bias is influenced by a biased subordinate to take a negative employment action against an employee. In this context, the cat’s paw is the unbiased supervisor who is misled by the biased individual into taking adverse employment action against an employee who took FMLA leave. When an employer takes an adverse employment action that is in accord with the biased supervisor’s recommendation, the employer can only escape liability if it shows that it conducted an independent investigation and determined that the adverse action was warranted.

An FMLA retaliation claim involves an employee who claims that as a result of taking protected FMLA leave, he or she has been subjected to a materially adverse employment action by the employer, such as a termination, demotion or decrease in salary.

An FMLA interference claim must have the following two elements: (1) the employer interfered, restrained, or denied the exercise of an employee’s FMLA rights, and (2) the interference directly resulted in monetary loss to the employee.

Facts. An employee suffering with several mental health issues was forced to take FMLA leave to seek treatment for these conditions. When she returned to work, she was required to attend to a backlog of projects that had accrued during her leave. As she struggled to complete this backlog, she was demoted from “supervisor” to “analyst,” a position she held when she began working for the company.

The decision to demote the employee was made by the division supervisor, who was influenced by the employee’s direct supervisor. The direct supervisor had previously ridiculed the employee about her use of FMLA leave in front of her peers at a departmental meeting. In response, the employee reported the harassment to her division supervisor, who in turn reported the matter to the company’s owner. The owner decided to terminate the employee under the belief that her allegation of FMLA harassment was false.

The employee sued her employer in federal court claiming, among other things, retaliation and interference under the FMLA. The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss the claim without a trial, and the employee appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Sixth Circuit. In reversing the district court, the Sixth Circuit relied on the cat’s paw theory of liability to determine that there was a genuine dispute about the employer’s liability for the FMLA claims. According to the Sixth Circuit, the employee had submitted sufficient evidence to suggest that her division supervisor was a conduit for her direct supervisor which influenced the decision to demote her. This, in turn, influenced the company’s owner to terminate the employee.

The Sixth Circuit next concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the employer conducted a thorough, independent investigation before terminating the employee. Therefore, the court determined that the company could not escape liability and proceeded to remand the matter back to the lower court for further consideration.

Marshall v. Rawlings is available at: