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SJC Recognizes Potential for Discriminatory "Monkey Business" By Way of A "Cat's Paw"

In June, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a decision reversing summary judgment in favor of an employer accused of age discrimination. The Court in Adams v. Schneider Electric USA acknowledged the viability of a “cat’s paw” theory of liability under Massachusetts law, finding it “is possible, and consistent with liability under the employment discrimination statute, for a mid-level manager directed to lay off employees in his or her division to be found to further a discriminatory corporate policy without knowingly doing so.”

Though widely used in case law to describe the phenomenon of a corporate actor unwittingly furthering a discriminatory agenda, is the first time the SJC has used the “evocative” cat’s paw terminology, which is derived from a fable “in which a monkey convinces a cat to roast chestnuts, and then makes off with the finished product, leaving the cat with a burned paw and no chestnuts to show for it.” The Court held that a “discriminatory corporate decision is not insulated from liability just because it is implemented by managers with limited decision-making authority, unaware that they are being used as ‘pawns’ or ‘paws.’”

While the decision reaffirmed summary judgment’s status as a “disfavored remedy” in discrimination cases turning on the factual question of intent, it nevertheless held the Appeals Court went too far in its statement of the applicable burden of production. It rejected the Appeals Court’s statement that, at summary judgment, courts “are required to disregard all testimony of a moving party that a jury is not required to believe,” and sided with the dissent’s assertion that “potential disbelief” in the testimony of the manager who made the termination decision, standing alone, “does not a dispute of fact make.” The SJC rejected the proposition that a court must disregard all testimony of the manager at the summary judgment stage “simply because he is an interested witness and a jury might not find him credible.”

The Court held that the nonmovant employee “must point to specific material in the record that could lead a jury to doubt [the manager’s] credibility.” Reviewing the record de novo, the Court found this burden could be met based on particular pieces of evidence supporting a conclusion that the manager inferred or was directly told to select older employees for layoff, and that he responded by doing so.



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