Friday, October 23, 2015

Seventh Circuit Rejects Firefighter’s “Cat’s Paw” Liability Theory in Federal Employment Discrimination Case

In a recent federal decision in Woods v. City of Berwyn, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff/firefighter in an employment discrimination case. Plaintiff, John Woods alleged violations of FMLA, ADA and ADEA arising from his termination. According to his employer, Woods told a co-worker at the Berwyn Fire Department that “he wanted to kill somebody, all of them” and that his children were going to “go over there” and “tune them up,” referring to his coworkers and superiors. The Fire Department Chief investigated the matter and eventually recommended termination. Woods denied making these statements. The Board of Fire and Police Commissioners conducted a full hearing on the Fire Chief’s recommendation and voted to terminate Woods based largely on the testimony of a co-worker to whom Woods made the statement.  

Woods filed a complaint in federal court asserting discrimination and unlawful retaliation. Specifically, Woods attempted to proceed under a “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which applies in employment discrimination cases when a biased supervisor (Fire Chief) who lacks decision-making power uses the formal decision-maker (the Board) to fire him. The City terminated Woods on grounds that he had engaged in conduct unbecoming firefighter, as well as had engaged in fighting/verbal abuse and made false statements during the internal investigation. Woods denied making threats that he wanted to kill someone that formed basis of his termination and argued that his supervisor (Fire Chief) harbored discriminatory animosity towards him that could be imputed to the Board under a cat’s paw theory of liability.

The Seventh Circuit refused to apply this theory of liability relying on undisputed evidence that showed the Board conducted its own, full-scale hearing into internal charges against Woods that did not merely rely on facts supplied to it by the supervisor. As a result, any causal chain between supervisor's alleged discriminatory animosity and Board’s decision to terminate Woods was broken. The fact that supervisor had recommended that Woods be terminated and had initiated termination proceedings did not require different result. Woods also failed to prove that others accused of similar misconduct had been treated more favorably.

For these reasons, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s “cat’s paw” theory of liability and upheld summary judgment in favor of the City of Berwyn on all claims.