Age Discrimination Claim Advances Based On “Cat’s Paw” Theory

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination. It is illegal for an employer to take adverse employment action against an employee based on their age.

To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA, a plaintiff must demonstrate four elements: (1) they are a member of the protected age group (between 40 and 70 years old), (2) they experienced adverse employment action, (3) a substantially younger person filled the position they sought or were discharged from, and (4) they were qualified for the job they were rejected from.

However, what happens if the person who takes the ultimate adverse action, such as termination, does so based on another’s recommendation? Recently, our firm successfully challenged the dismissal of a claim where a vice president terminated a female worker based on the recommendation of her direct supervisor. In the case of Godwin v. Wellstar, we presented evidence suggesting that this recommendation may have been biased. As a result, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the company and allowed our client’s age discrimination claim to proceed.

In this instance, the focus was on the “Cat’s Paw theory,” which allows a plaintiff to establish but-for causation even if the ultimate decision-maker was neutral and unbiased. Under the Cat’s Paw theory, a plaintiff can demonstrate but-for causation if they show that the unbiased decision-maker (in this case, the Vice President) followed a biased recommendation without conducting an independent investigation into the complaint against the employee. Essentially, the person recommending the termination is using the decision-maker as a conduit or “cat’s paw” for their discriminatory intent. In the past, courts have assessed whether the ultimate decision was merely a “rubber stamp.”

In this particular case, the court expanded on this concept and stated that an ADEA plaintiff must show not only that the adverse employment action would not have occurred without the recommendation but also that the biased individual’s action had a “determinative influence” on the ultimate decision.

The court determined that we had presented sufficient evidence of a “determinative influence.” This included evidence that the woman would not have been fired if not for the supervisor’s recommendation, that the Vice President who terminated her failed to conduct an independent investigation following the recommendation, that the Vice President did not verify the information provided by the supervisor, and that the Vice President had “no direct knowledge” of the complaints. Consequently, we effectively utilized the Cat’s Paw theory to demonstrate that the biased individual’s action had a “determinative influence” on the ultimate decision.