Stephen A. Glickman, P.C.
The front steps to the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago

7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Age Discrimination Claim

On May 6, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a tenured professor against a college under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Roberts v. Columbia College Chicago, et al., No. 15-2079 (7th Cir., 5/6/2016). In this case, a college terminated a professor after it discovered that he had allegedly plagiarized several chapters in a textbook. He claimed that his termination was unlawful discrimination on the basis of his age. The ADEA prohibits an employer from terminating or otherwise discriminating against an employee because of his or her age. The protected class under the ADEA covers individuals who are 40 years of age or older. The plaintiff did not produce any evidence that the decision-maker harbored any age-based discriminatory animus against him. Instead, he tried to advance his claim under the “cat’s paw” theory of liability–that the decision-maker’s decision was influenced by a subordinate employee–who acted for discriminatory reasons.

There was no evidence that the subordinate overtly manipulated or decisively influenced the decision-maker’s termination decision. Under the “cat’s paw” theory, the subordinate (with the discriminatory animus) is not required to be the singular influence on the decision-maker. However, if the final decision-maker conducted his or her own independent investigation into the reasons for the employment termination before making the termination decision, instead of blindly relying on the subordinate’s recommendation, then no liability exists under the “cat’s paw” theory. There is no reasonable inference that the subordinate’s discriminatory animus against the employee manipulated the termination decision. The decision-maker’s investigation breaks the chain of causation.

7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Age Discrimination Claim

On February 3, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in an age discrimination lawsuit in which a former school principal alleged that his contract was not renewed because of his age. Bordelon v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 14-3240 (7th Cir., 2/3/2016). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of his or her age. A plaintiff may prove discriminatory intent under the ADEA with the direct or indirect method of proof. Under the direct method, the plaintiff may rely on direct or circumstantial evidence to show discriminatory motivation. Direct evidence, which is rare, is an acknowledgement of discriminatory intent by the defendant. Circumstantial evidence is evidence that allows an inference of intentional discrimination by the decisionmaker.

In an employment discrimination case, circumstantial evidence may include suspicious timing, ambiguous statements, disparate treatment, or pretext. It is essentially evidence that raises a doubt about the genuineness of the employer’s stated reason for the subject employment decision. In this case, the 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had not established a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would allow a jury to infer intentional discrimination by the decisionmaker. Some of the evidence was excluded as inadmissible hearsay, while other evidence was rejected as conclusory. It is important to remember that the Federal Rules of Evidence apply in summary judgment proceedings.

Go to Top