African American Worker Can Bring Discrimination Lawsuit Based On “Cat’s Paw” Doctrine

One question that comes up a lot in race discrimination cases is “Can I file a lawsuit against my employer for discriminatory actions of a co-worker?” For example, sometime a supervisor or other co-worker may file a complaint against you or harass you just because of your skin color, your religion or your sex. In some situations, that complaint may lead your employer to fire you, transfer you to a different job or take some other negative employment action against you.

A recent case out of Tennessee found that in these situations it may be possible to sue your employer. This is called the “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which means that where racial bias (or some other form of discrimination) is the real cause of a certain negative employment action, then your employer may be held responsible.

In Chattman v. Toho Tenax Am. Inc., a black warehouse employee was given a final written warning after he “engaged in horseplay” with a white co-worker. Because the black worker received a warning, he was no longer eligible for promotion. White employees who engaged in the same type of “horseplay” were not punished.

Further, the black employee presented evidence that an HR director made repeated racist comments, recommended that the black worker be fired and gave executives at the company a false report concerning the worker’s performance.

Specifically, the H.R. director “joked” that O.J. Simpson was innocent and his ex-wife Nicole Brown was killed by their son because Simpson had replied to a question from his son by stating, “Go axe your mother.” He further k responded to another employee’s complaint that her son had gotten into trouble for fighting at school by saying: “You know what my grandfather always says about boys scuffling? That’s how the nigger graveyard got full.” The same month, the H.R. director also made anti-Obama statements stating “Well, you better look close at Obama’s running mate because Americans won’t allow a nigger president.”

Further, after a co-worker had retorted “you’re not my damn boss” in response to black worker’s request for help in moving some boxes, the two engaged in physical horseplay. The white worker then filed an incident report for workers’ compensation, claiming the black worker had “body-slammed” him and caused injuries.

A Tennessee court determined that the report and the HR director’s comments both lead (were the “proximate cause”) of the worker’s termination. Because the negative reports influenced the warning and negative actions, the worker could raise a claim against his employer under the “cat’s paw” theory.

The court further explained “”The statements are particularly troubling because they include both racist language and the threat or suggestion of violence or death based on race …No inference is required to glean from these statements that harbored racial animus towards African Americans. We have previously held that similar ‘racist comments’ constitute direct evidence of discriminatory intent and [the] remarks do so here.”

But the court also said it need not rely on direct evidence because, even if [the] claims are analyzed under the indirect method of proof, they survive summary judgment. The written warning caused “a materially adverse change” in his employment because it rendered him ineligible for promotion.

If you believe you have been received unfair, negative treatment at work based on an improper motive or bias, such as race, gender or religion, it’s important to seek the advice of a top Atlanta discrimination attorney right away.

For more information, contact the top Georgia race discrimination attorneys at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP for an immediate case evaluation.