Wednesday, May 2, 2012

No "cat's paw" for DOCS officer

The Supreme Court said last year that under the "cat's paw" theory, a Title VII plaintiff can win his case if a biased supervisor wanted him fired and played a role in his termination. The plaintiff in this case invokes the cat's paw in pursuing a racial discrimination case. The Court of Appeals will not let him.

The case is Adamczyk v. New York State Dept. of Correctional Services, a summary order decided on April 5. This is a summary order and therefore less precedential than a published opinion, but this is one of the few cases interpreting Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the cat's paw case. Plaintiff, a white corrections officer, was fired after management accused him of dropping the ball as "evening watch commander" when an inmate was beaten up by other prison guards. His case went to arbitration, and after a full hearing, the arbitrator ruled against plaintiff, who was then fired.

Ten years ago, the Second Circuit in Collins v. Transit Authority, 305 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 2002), put the kabosh on Title VII lawsuits where the plaintiff lost his disciplinary hearing. The thinking is that if a fair hearing before an arbitrator or hearing officer finds the plaintiff guilty of misconduct, the plaintiff needs a damned good reason for the federal courts to override the hearing officer in a separate lawsuit. It can be done, but it's not easy. Federal courts believe these hearings are generally fair. Plaintiff tries to get around this by arguing that the hearing officer relied on testimony from a racist superior officer, Kearney, who gave black officers a break but went after plaintiff, who is white. Plaintiff is trying to use the "cat's paw" theory to get around Collins. This is a creative effort, but the Court of Appeals (Sack, Livingston and Lynch) is not buying it.

We conclude that, notwithstanding Staub [v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct. 1186 (2011)], Appellant’s case fails because he has not adduced evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that Kearney’s testimony was motivated by discriminatory animus “intended . . . to cause an adverse employment action.” Appellant has produced evidence that, if believed, would allow a jury to conclude that Kearney uttered two statements suggesting he may harbor, or may at some point have harbored, some sense of racial grievance. However, one of these statements was made near the beginning of Kearney’s tenure at Wende, which began in 1999, and neither statement was made to Appellant or in the context of the decisionmaking process that resulted in Appellant’s termination. The probative value of such statements is thus limited, even drawing all inferences in Appellant’s favor."

In addition, while plaintiff submitted affidavits purporting to show that Kearney more favorably treated black employees, that evidence does not get him the cat's paw, either. The Second Circuit also rejects plaintiff's effort:

Missing from these affidavits, however, are facts detailing a single incident in which Kearney treated an African-American employee favorably and treated a similarly-situated employee of another race unfavorably. Therefore, Appellant’s evidence fails to support the conclusion that Kearney’s favorable treatment of the employees in question was motivated by race, as opposed to any of the myriad other motivations that prompt supervisors to treat employees leniently.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Kearney instigated the disciplinary inquiry, and even if a reasonable factfinder could conclude that his testimony against Adamczyk was false, he had ample non-racial motivation to testify as he did, in order to insulate himself from blame for the inmate’s injuries and to shift responsibility onto his subordinates, including Appellant. Thus, Appellant has failed to produce evidence that would permit a reasonable juror to find that Kearney harbored racial animus and that such animus was a motivating factor in an alleged decision on his part to give false testimony.

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