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Beware Potential ‘Cat’s Paw’ Liability When Making Layoffs


A Massachusetts court has ruled that a fired worker could sue for age discrimination over a round of layoffs allegedly tainted by age bias at upper levels of the company, even though the manager conducting the layoff relied on nondiscriminatory criteria in selecting workers to be cut.

54-year-old Mark Adams was in the last of three “reductions in force” at Schneider Electric USA’s Boston office between April 2016 and January 2017.

The manager in charge of the RIF allegedly targeted workers who spent a majority of their time supporting different teams and whose loss would impact his team’s goals the least. In selecting the cuts, the manager made a spreadsheet of pros, cons and salaries of different workers and identified Adams, who had been pulled from an initiative he liked to work on one he didn’t like, as one of the workers to be laid off.

Adams ultimately brought an age discrimination claim in state court, pointing out that despite the manager’s use of neutral criteria, 22 of the 24 workers fired in the three RIFs were over age 50 and one of the others was over 40.

Additionally, post-RIF email exchanges suggested that corporate higher-ups viewed the “aging” Boston workforce as a liability and that the layoffs were to make room for “younger talent.”

The company argued that any ageist comments in the emails were “stray remarks” made by non-decisionmakers after the fact and that a number of older workers did survive the RIF. Accordingly, said the company, no jury could possibly find that the RIFs were motivated by anything other than cutting costs.

But the court found that Adams presented enough facts to proceed to a jury under a “cat’s paw” theory of liability – a theory that executives motivated by discriminatory intent influenced a neutral decisionmaker like Adams’ manager to take an adverse action against him.

While Adams still has to convince a jury to rule in his favor, just having to defend a case like this will cost the employer considerable time, expense and stress. It’s a good lesson in why it’s so important to consult with an employment lawyer to ensure your own layoff processes are free of any inference of discriminatory intent.