Tennessee Discrimination Suit Proceeds Under ‘Cat’s Paw’ Liability Theory

By Michael Adams | August 21, 2012

A Tennessee civil court is allowing a man to pursue a racial discrimination lawsuit after being reprimanded for his role in a questionable workers’ compensation claim filed by another worker.

The United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit has ruled that Everett Chattman is within his rights to pursue the Title VII discrimination lawsuit despite a lower court’s ruling that granted a summary judgment in favor of his employer, Toho Tenex America Inc.

The court invoked the “cat’s paw” theory of liability, finding that the company’s human resource director’s racial animus can be used to establish the company’s liability even though the HR director was himself not involved in the disciplinary action taken against the employee.

Chattman, an African-American and 20-year employee of the company, was reprimanded following an incident where he bear-hugged a fellow white worker, Frank Johnson, who subsequently went to the hospital and filed a workers’ compensation claim.

The incident spurred a series of events that revolved around the company’s human resource director, Jeff Tullock, whom Chattman alleged had a racial bias against African-Americans and Chattman personally. Tullock had a history of making racial remarks at the company that cast African-Americans in an unfavorable light.

At issue in the case was Tullock’s behavior when it came to handling the Chattman incident. At several points, the court noted, Tullock misinformed various members of upper management about the investigation into the matter. For example, he met with the vice president of operations and Chattman’s immediate supervisor, who agreed not to take action without speaking to someone in the company’s human resources and legal departments. However, Tullock later represented to the Vice President of Human Resources Jeff Lane that all three men recommended that Chattman be terminated. Similarly, after Lane called for a full investigation while making no final decisions, Tullock represented to then Toho President Marc Verbruggen that Lane agreed that Chattman be fired.

Eventually, Chattman was allowed to keep his job with a formal written reprimand, which he contends cost him a promotion.

In finding for Chattman, the court of appeals considered two legal arguments including one that established there is evidence to show that Tullock sought to discipline Chattman for engaging in conduct similar to what other white employees did without being reprimanded.

And although Chattman’s incident with Johnson resulted in a workers’ compensation claim, company officials would later question Johnson’s version of events since he related it differently to coworkers and it was inconsistent with the accounts of two other employees who were eye witnesses.

Toho’s IT Manager Connie Jackson told Verbruggen in an email that Johnson “had a history of making workers’ compensation claims and receiving time off and money associated with them.”

Jackson said that the horseplay, “Is part of the plant culture and this incident is by no means an isolated case. Even if the policy says that horseplay is not tolerated, I believe the accepted practice takes precedence, legally.”

The court also found that Chattman could pursue the case under the “cat’s paw” theory of liability. As spelled out in a recent Supreme Court decision, Staub v. Proctor Hospital [131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011)], “If a supervisor performs an act motivated by [discriminatory] animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause and adverse employment actions, and that if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable.”

Thus, even though it was upper management that formally reprimanded Chattman, since they did so on based on Tullock’s actions, their actions were an extension of the racial prejudice.

“Tullock was the Human Resources manager and actively inserted himself in the decision making process. He both misinformed and selectively informed Lane and Verbruggen about the incident. A reasonable fact finder could find Tullock’s actions were a proximate cause of the adverse decisions,” said the court.

The case now goes back to the lower where the employment actions alleged by Chattman and any potential damages can be decided by a jury.

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