On August 13, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed an Order of summary judgment on Title VII and Section 1981 claims in an employment law case in which a former employee alleged that her employer terminated her employment because of her race and in retaliation for her complaints of employment discrimination. Miller v. Polaris Laboratories, No. 14-2621 (7th Cir. 8-13-2015). The employer contended that it terminated the employee due to her demonstrably poor job performance. The employee claimed that her immediate supervisor and a co-worker, both motivated by a discriminatory and retaliatory animus, sabotaged her work to get rid of her. The employee supported her position with evidence that they had made racist remarks about her. The higher-level manager who actually made the termination decision had no unlawful motive for the termination. However, the employer can still be held liable under the “cat’s paw” theory–that the lower-level supervisor and co-worker deliberately influenced the actual decision-maker to unwittingly terminate the employee for their own unlawful reasons. The “cat’s paw” theory applies to employment discrimination and retaliation claims.
The 7th Circuit held that the employee raised factual questions sufficient to preclude summary judgment and warrant a jury trial. Significant in the employment law world, this is a case where an employee controverted (at least at the summary judgment stage) ostensibly incontrovertible evidence of poor performance by arguing that her supervisor set her up to fail for invidious reasons.