Fifth Circuit Finds Evidence of Pretext in a Supervisor's Expression of Animus Against Older Employees and Applies the "Cat's Paw" Rule

The Fifth Circuit is often unsympathetic to appeals from summary judgments against employees in discrimination cases.  However, on February 1, 2013, we saw an exception, when the Fifth Circuit overturned a summary judgment in Chambers v. Sodexo, Inc., No. 12-60232 (5th Cir. Feb. 1, 2013) (not for publication).

This was an age discrimination case.  The plaintiff (Chambers) worked for Sodexo, which provided food services at Alcorn State University.  His immediate supervisor was the general manager, Logan.  The district manager was Prince.  The Fifth Circuit set forth the facts as follows:

On July 16, Chambers and Sheba Logan, the new general manager, ate lunch together in the dining room. During the conversation, Logan discovered that Chambers was age fifty-five and told him that she preferred a younger chef. Within minutes, Logan told the cooks to follow her directions rather than listen to Chambers. Over the next few months, she waged a campaign to get him fired —calling human resources with false accusations, forcing him to order far too much food, refusing to let him conduct inventory, and keeping him in the dark about catered events.

Prince fired Chambers on November 5 for deficient performance, alleging food shortages at events on four dates, excessive food ordering and inventory, not completing inventory according to policy, and not following safety guidelines. While meeting with Prince, Chambers disputed each of the allegations. Prince then conferred with Logan and informed Chambers he would be fired anyway because Logan did not like him.

If these facts are correct, then it should be apparent that firing was not handled well by Sodexo.  There is no indication that Chambers was given any write ups or progressive discipline.  It seems strange that Chambers would be given an opportunity to dispute the allegations against him for the first time at the meeting with Prince.  It also seems unusual that Sodexo did not investigate Chamber's claims.  Finally, if Prince really told Chambers that he would be fired because Logan did not like him, then clearly Prince was not properly trained to handle a personnel matter.

Of course, the actual facts may turn out to be quite different.  At the summary judgment stage, the court takes the facts presented by the plaintiff as true.

Remarkably, the district court granted summary judgment against Chambers, evidently finding that he had not proven that the stated reasons for his firing were pretextual.  In addition, Sodexo apparently argued that there was no evidence that Prince (as opposed to Logan) had any discriminatory animus against older workers.  It was Prince, not Logan, who made the decision to fire Chambers.

The latter argument is a common approach taken made by employers in discrimination suits.  However, that approach is problematic at best in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (U.S. 2011), which recognized the so-called "cat's paw" rule.  If the actual decisionmaker (who has no discriminatory animus) is influenced by a lower level supervisor who has a discriminatory motive, then the actual decisionmaker may be a "cat's paw" for the lower level supervisor.  An employer cannot avoid liability on the basis that the actual decisionmaker had no discriminatory animus, if the decisionmaker would have acted differently but for the input of the supervisor with discriminatory animus.

Applying the cat's paw rule, the Fifth Ciruit rejected Sodexo's arguments:

The parties dispute whether Chambers can show that he was otherwise discharged because of age and that Sodexo’s articulated reasons for firing him were mere pretext. Taking Chambers’s allegations as true, and making all reasonable inferences in his favor, we conclude that Chambers has raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to age discrimination.

First, a jury could infer that Logan was motivated by age, because her poor treatment of Chambers began just after she discovered his age. Second, Chambers does not allege that Prince, who actually made the decision to fire him, was motivated by age discrimination, but that Prince acted as a cat’s paw for Logan.  Logan primarily influenced Prince by sabotaging Chambers. Also, after Chambers had disputed Prince’s stated reasons for firing him, Prince conferred with Logan and decided to fire Chambers anyway, because Logan did not like him. A jury could infer that Prince’s decision was influenced by Logan. Finally, Prince’s conference with Logan and subsequent statement suggest that his stated reasons were mere pretext. Summary judgment was therefore not appropriate on the ADEA claim.

Again, it should be noted that the result might have been different if Prince had conducted an independent investigation after Chambers disputed Logan's accusations.  In the post-Staub era, it is unwise for a supervisor to rely on reports from a lower level supervisor when it is apparent that the grounds for the termination are contentious.

David C. Holmes is a Houston employment lawyer with The Law Offices of David C. Holmes