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Employment Termination ordered by high level company official

California employment law recognizes the concept of “cat’s paw”. This is essentially an argument that someone made the supervisor do it, even though the supervisor did not have a direct role in initiating the termination or other adverse action. At employmentattorneyca. com we come across this situation pretty often.

In today’s case of interest, from outside California, Travers vs. Flight Services Systems, Inc., the issue was an employee’s organizing of a class action lawsuit against both his employer and their main customer, Jet Blue Airways. The plaintiff, Joseph Travers, acted as the leader and encouraged others to join the suit. After the suit was filed, the employer’s CEO, Robert Weitzel, Sr, continually harangued the plaintiffs’ immediate supervisor to fire Travers. While the suit was pending to conditionally certify an opt-in class (which means all members must specifically agree to participate, unlike the California state standard of opt-out), a passenger complained that the plaintiff solicited a tip. As a result of this the company fired the plaintiff. The issue for the court was whether this alleged “good cause” rendered academic any need to go to court.

The Court of Appeals concluded that numerous friable issues of fact existed and whether someone should be fired for soliciting a tip was not the issue (that’s a management decision). The question is whether, in this case, the employer was simply using this complaint as a pretext. The Court held that a jury could find ample evidence of pretext in that the employee simply stated that a “tip was appreciated”, which was consistent with printed company policies (and published for the public to see). Further, there was no evidence that a tip solicitation would in fact be grounds for termination. One employee was simply transferred (this employee was “bugging passengers for tips”) and, according to evidence by the plaintiff, others fired had done far worse than just ask for a tip.

The legal issue is really whether there was enough evidence to directly link the termination to the class action lawsuit organizing. The court noted that the retaliatory animus was at the apex of the corporate and took the form of express instructions to fire the plaintiff. “Such strongly held and repeatedly voiced wishes of the king, so to speak, likely became well known to those courtiers who might rid him of a bothersome underlying.” Put in yet another case” “the battle plan of the admiral is a valid datum in assessing the intentions of the captain”/

the demands by the CEO were not “stray”, nor ambiguous. Its neither irrational nor unfair to impute that knowledge of the CEO’s orders spread to other managers. In short, the court asks whether the HR people who fired the plaintiff acted with awareness of the CEO’s desire to retaliate and whether plaintiff would have been fired.

We’ve litigated numerous “cat’s paw” cases at California Employment Attorney and would welcome the chance to speak with you about your employment case. We work in tandem with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing to help you exhaust your administrative remedies.