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.