Shaleigha Shepard
Shaleigha Shepard Trial Attorney

Cats paw theory is a legal doctrine that holds employers accountable for the discriminatory actions of their employees, even if the employer had no discriminatory intent. This doctrine has been applied in various employment law cases in Houston, Texas, and has significant implications for both employers and employees.

Understanding Cats Paw Theory

The term “cats paw” finds its origins in an Aesop fable where a monkey convinces a cat to retrieve chestnuts from a fire, only for the monkey to eat them all, leaving the cat with burned paws. In the employment context, the term refers to a situation where an employer is metaphorically burned by the actions of an employee who is influenced by a discriminatory motive.

Under cats paw theory, an employer can be held liable for the discriminatory actions of an employee if the employee’s actions were motivated by discriminatory intent, and the employer was aware of or should have been aware of the discriminatory motive. This can occur even if the employee did not have decision-making authority and was not the ultimate decision-maker in the employment action.

Case Law Illustration: Zamora v. The City

Let’s delve into the case of Zamora v. The City to understand how cats paw theory played a crucial role. In this case, Zamora sued the City for Title VII retaliation after he was suspended for 10 days by the chief of police following an Internal Affairs investigation. The key argument in this case was whether the retaliatory statements made by Zamora’s supervisors within the Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) were the cause of his suspension, even though the chief of police was the actual decision-maker and did not exhibit any retaliatory animus.

The city contended that Zamora’s CRU supervisors’ retaliatory statements during the Internal Affairs investigation were not the cause of his suspension, as the decision was made by a higher-level decision-maker and underwent multiple layers of internal review. However, the jury disagreed and awarded Zamora $150,000.00 in compensatory damages.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision in this case clarified the application of cats paw theory. It emphasized that Zamora’s suspension did not directly result from allegations of misconduct against him but rather from an investigation prompted by his CRU supervisors’ violation of departmental policies. The retaliatory statements made by these supervisors played a significant role in turning an investigation against them into a recommendation for Zamora’s discipline.

In essence, without the retaliatory statements against Zamora, the investigation would not have recommended discipline, the departmental discipline committee would not have adopted the recommendation, and the chief of police would not have had any grounds for suspension. Thus, Zamora’s suspension was ultimately attributed to his supervisors’ retaliatory actions, illustrating how cats paw theory can hold employers accountable for discriminatory actions even when the ultimate decision-maker appears impartial.


The cats paw theory in employment law serves as a powerful tool to ensure accountability in cases involving discrimination, retaliation, or wrongful termination. Employers should be vigilant about the actions of their employees and take appropriate steps to prevent and address discriminatory motives within their workforce. The Zamora v. The City case serves as a reminder that even when decision-making authority lies with a higher-level individual, the influence of discriminatory actions can still have far-reaching consequences, making it crucial for employers to be proactive in promoting a discrimination-free workplace. Employees who believe they have been subjected to discrimination or retaliation should consult with me, Shaleigha Shepard, or any other attorney at Wiley Wheeler, P.C. to determine their legal rights and options.