On January 14, 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the defendant in a state court age discrimination lawsuit brought under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Cipolla v. Village of Oak Lawn, 2015 IL App (1st) 132228 (1-14-2015). The plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and later filed a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County, in which she alleged that the defendant terminated her employment on account of her age in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act. Section 1-102(A) of the Act provides that it is the public policy of Illinois to secure freedom from discrimination against any individual because of her age or other protected class. After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed on several grounds and argued to the Appellate Court that the jury’s verdict should be reversed and the case remanded for a new trial.
Plaintiff argued that the trial court should have given the jury a “cat’s paw” liability jury instruction to permit the jury to determine whether the defendant could be found liable for one manager’s discriminatory motive in recommending her termination to the decision-maker. Under the cat’s paw theory of liability, an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination if a manager acts with discriminatory intent to influence the decision-maker to take adverse employment action against an employee. The manager with the discriminatory intent does not make the decision, but causes another manger to do so. The non-decision maker must have exercised a singular influence over the decision-maker so that the decision to fire the employee resulted from blind reliance. The Appellate Court held that the trial evidence did not warrant the cat’s paw jury instruction and, therefore, the trial court did not err in refusing to give it. There was no evidence that the decision-maker blindly relied on the non-decision maker in connection with his employment decision to terminate the plaintiff, or that the non-decision maker had a discriminatory intent.
The plaintiff also argued that the trial court erred by refusing to clarify for the jury the meaning of the word “fired.” While the jurors were deliberating, they requested that the judge define the term fire and clarify whether it includes laid off, terminated, and eliminated. The plaintiff contended that the judge should have answered yes, but the trial judge, deciding that the jury’s question was factual, instructed the jury to resolve its questions by reviewing the evidence and referring to the jury instructions. The Appellate Court agreed, and held that the jury’s request for clarification on the meaning of the word “fired” raised a factual issue, and the trial court did not err in refusing to answer it. The jury’s question whether “fired” includes laid off, terminated, or position elimination was a question of fact for the jury to decide.
The Appellate Court found that the jury instructions approved by the trial judge accurately and sufficiently stated Illinois law on the elements a plaintiff is required to prove to win an employment discrimination case. Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions provide that the plaintiff has the burden to prove: (1) that the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant; (2) that the plaintiff was fired from her employment with the defendant; (3) that the plaintiff was fired because of her age (or other protected classification); and (4) that the plaintiff sustained damages as a result her firing. It should be noted that these state court jury instructions differ from those that would be used in a federal court employment discrimination case, where the instructions would usually be based on the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting method of proof.