WCI, Inc
Aug. 2, 2022

Investigate before you terminate

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent ruling, Brooks v. Avancez, (Decided July 6, 2022) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a finding for summary judgment for an employer after it was found to have terminated its employee for legitimate non-discriminatory reasons. The decision makes clear that an employer may avoid "cat's paw liability" where the decision maker is not wholly dependent upon a single source of information and conducts her own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision.

In its July 6, 2022 Decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that Avancez lawfully terminated the plaintiff, Ms. Brooks for making various threats of violence toward her co-workers, rather than (as she alleged) because of her age and disability - PTSD. Avancez is an auto parts manufacturer located in Roanoke, Indiana. Ms. Brooks alleged that during her employment with Avancez, she repeatedly complained of unfair treatment and derogatory comments based on her age and disability by her co-workers. The Court found that Ms. Brooks failed to provide sufficient examples of any age based comments, rather she described, generally, that two of her co-workers made statements that she was old and slow. The Court further found that there was no evidence that Ms. Brooks complained of disability discrimination, rather she only stated that certain workplace situations exacerbated her preexisting PTSD.

However, there was sufficient evidence, including Ms. Brooks' concession, that management - on two separate occasions - believed that Ms. Brooks made threats toward her co-workers. On one occasion, Ms. Brooks, during a meeting with the human resources manager, allegedly stated "I have PTSD and anything can happen." On another occasion, Ms. Brooks, during a disagreement with a co-worker stated, "we can take it outside." On both occasions, management advised Ms. Brooks that they believed her comments constituted threats.

Ms. Brooks nevertheless maintained that her co-workers' discriminatory remarks regarding her age raised an inference of discrimination. The Court disagreed. The Court found that even under Brooks' "cat's paw" theory of liability, there was no evidence that the non-supervisor actually harbored discriminatory animus against her and Avancez's management, after conducting its own investigation, which included Ms. Brooks' history of making threats to co-workers and her refusal to sign off on the discipline report, made the decision to terminate Ms. Brooks' employment.

The Court, therefore, disregarded Ms. Brooks' "scattershot" attempts to provide evidence of pretext, and found that Avancez met its burden of production by providing a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating her employment.

Practical Point - conduct your own investigations before termination. A manager responsible for making a decision as to whether to terminate an employee's employment should be diligent and ensure that they are not performing the discriminatory acts of another individual. Pursuant to the Cat's Paw theory of liability, employers may be found liable for discrimination where there is evidence that the unbiased decision maker is influenced to take an adverse action by another employee with discriminatory intent. However, an inference of pre-text can be thwarted where the decision maker conducts his/her own investigation into the company's basis for terminating an employee.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

Vy'Shaey Mitchell and Erin Dougherty Foley, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, (c) Mondaq Ltd, 2022

From WCI's HR Answers Now ©2022 CCH Incorporated and its affiliates. All rights reserved.

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