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Employers could be responsible for supervisor discrimination

Pennsylvania employers might be liable if a supervisor takes an action that discriminates against an employee. A U.S Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit split panel reversed a decision by a lower court in a case that involved a woman being fired after returning from leave she took under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The woman argued that two supervisors showed bias against her for taking the leave. However, a district court has dismissed the woman's claims.

The 6th Circuit panel argued that the employer was liable under a principle known as "cat's paw". This is based on an opinion in a 1990 case that found an employer could be liable if a low-level supervisor discriminated against an employee. Arguing that the higher-level supervisors who made the final decision did so in good faith is not sufficient defense based on the cat's paw principle. The employer needs to be able to demonstrate that an independent investigation was carried out to verify the claims of a lower-level supervisor before an employee can be disciplined or fired.

For an employee's suit to be successful, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the supervisor who made the decision was acting as the "cat's paw" to the lower-level supervisor. This means that the higher-level supervisor was essentially acting on behalf of the lower-level one.

Regulations around FMLA can be complicated, and even employers do not always interpret it correctly. It allows employees to take time off for their own illnesses or injuries or those of immediate family members, but the procedure for this must be followed correctly or an employer could be held responsible. People who feel that they have been illegally denied FMLA leave or who have faced retaliation after taking it might want to consult an attorney even if they intend to try to deal with the problem through human resources.

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