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Employer found not liable for racial discrimination


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lmallory

By Laura Mallory

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which is based in Colorado, recently affirmed a lower court’s holding dismissing an employee’s claim for racial discrimination against his employer.

Background
The plaintiff, an African American man, filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging he was retaliated against for opposing racial discrimination within the company. The plaintiff worked for the employer for approximately seven years. During the course of those seven years, the plaintiff had eight different supervisors who initiated at least thirteen disciplinary actions against him. The disciplinary actions ranged from a verbal coaching to suspensions and final warnings.

The plaintiff’s last group leader suspended him due to a quality issue. This suspension, and a prior suspension issued by another supervisor months earlier, resulted in a Last Chance Agreement with the plaintiff. This Last Chance Agreement provided that the plaintiff would be subject to termination if he sustained any rule or attendance violations in the future. While the last group leader suspended the plaintiff, he was not involved in the decision to give the plaintiff the Last Chance Agreement.

Just a few weeks later, the group leader gave the plaintiff a Final Warning for failing to properly perform his job, which indicated the plaintiff would be terminated if he had any further quality or performance related issues. The plaintiff objected and told his employer that he properly performed his job and he was being discriminated against based on his race. An investigation revealed that the mistake at work was not the plaintiff’s fault and the Final Warning was rescinded. Within a couple of months, the group leader submitted a report blaming the plaintiff for a quality issue. The plaintiff was ultimately terminated. 

The plaintiff initially challenged his termination through a review process, however, his termination was affirmed. A lawsuit ensued, alleging wrongful discharge and termination in retaliation for opposing race discrimination. The plaintiff also invoked the “cat’s paw” theory of recovery, arguing the group leader, who possessed the retaliatory animus, infected the individual that terminated the plaintiff.

Cat’s Paw
Under a cat’s paw theory of recovery, an employer who acts without any discriminatory intent can nonetheless be liable for a subordinate’s discriminatory animus if the employer relies on the biased subordinate in deciding to take adverse action.

The employer moved for summary judgment which was granted by the lower court. The plaintiff appealed that decision. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision because the plaintiff lacked evidence that the group leader possessed any discriminatory animus towards the plaintiff. There was also no evidence that the decision maker had any discriminatory intent when he terminated plaintiff. As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.

 

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