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7th Circuit Interprets Proximate Cause in Cat's Paw Case

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

If you don't know what the Cat's Paw theory of liability is, don't feel bad. It's a reference to an ancient Aesop story where a scheming monkey dupes a cat into harming his paw so that the monkey could reap the benefits of someone's labor and pain.

The 7th Circuit has offered its own interpretation on which defendants can rely without fear of being duped into a costly and headache inducing discrimination lawsuit.

Easier to Get Burned

In 2011, the SCOTUS decision of Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Court significantly eased the process by which plaintiffs could prove proximate cause between their being fired and discriminatory intent. In the opinions of some, the process has been made too easy and has virtually overshadowed the causation element. How, under Staub a plaintiff need only show proximate cause between the biased person and the final decision.

7th Circuit's Decision

John Woods and Robert Hamilton were co-firefighters in a fire department having a conversation about a position. Woods claims that Hamilton said he did not want the position; and Hamilton claims that Woods made comments that amounted to violent intent. This reached the fire chief's ears. Officers were ordered to conduct a psych check and a well-being check on Woods. Both checked out fine. 

The fire chief eventually made the recommendation that Board of Fire and Police Commissioners should terminate Woods. And it did. Woods brought suit and alleged that the fire chief's personal enmity toward him and that this fueled the Board's termination of him. The case of Woods v. City of Berwyn made its way to the 7th Circuit.

The "Unwitting Dupe"

Woods argued that the Board essentially rubber-stamped the decision to terminate him at the fire chief's decision. But the 7th Circuit was not buying that argument. It noted that the Board was not an "unwitting dupe" to any of the negative influence by the fire chief and did conduct its own due diligence when deciding to terminate Woods. It found that it was the Board that was ultimately responsible for the decision, thus breaking the chain of causation from the fire chief to Wood's termination.

Implications of Staub

Since no actual causation must be proven, even employers who fired a minority for legitimate reasons such as cause (theft) could face a lawsuit. Additionally, the High Court left huge ambiguities -- as the Supreme Court is known to do. 

At least with Woods, the 7th Circuit addressed the issue of actual causation in that it found that sufficient procedural safeguards were present and applied to keep the Board's paws safe from being burned by another discrimination suit.

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