Third Circuit Rules Employer Can Be Liable if Supervisor’s Discrimination Influenced Disciplinary Hearing

Under the “cat’s paw” theory, a company can be held liable for discrimination based on the discriminatory intent of an employee who influenced an employment decision, even if the person who actually made the decision did not discriminate. Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Court Circuit applied the cat’s paw theory and ruled a decision to fire an employee was retaliatory even though it was made by a disciplinary review board that did not intend to retaliate against the employee since the review process began as a result of retaliation. The Third Circuit is the federal appellate court that handles appeals from New Jersey. As I discussed in previous articles, earlier this year the United States Supreme Court adopted the “cat’s paw” theory in federal cases, and the New Jersey Appellate Division adopted the cat’s paw theory in November 2008.

In McKenna v. City of Philadelphia, three police officers sued the Philadelphia Police Department for retaliating against them because they objected to the fact that the Department was discriminating against African-American police officers. One of those Officers, Raymond Carnation, claimed he was assigned to work alone in dangerous neighborhoods in the rain and cold in retaliation for his objections to the race discrimination, and that Police Captain William Colarulo threatened to make his life “a living nightmare” if he filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Eventually, the Department brought disciplinary charges of insubordination against Officer Carnation, supposedly based on verbal altercation with Captain Colarulo. The disciplinary charges were referred to the Police Board of Inquiry (“PBI”), a board that investigates disciplinary charges against members of the Police Department and recommends the appropriate discipline.

The PBI found Officer Carnation guilty of the charges against him, and recommended that the City should fire him. The Police Commissioner agreed with that recommendation, and the City fired Officer Carnation.

After a trial in the civil lawsuit, a jury found in favor of all three of the police officers, including Officer Carnation, concluding the City had retaliated against them in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, the jury found that Officer Carnation’s objections to race discrimination was a factor that motivated the Department’s decision to fire him.

One of the primary issues on the appeal to the Third Circuit was whether the City could be held liable for retaliating against Officer Carnation even though the decision to fire him was made by the PBI and the Police Commissioner, neither of which had any intention of retaliating against him. The Court explained that an employer can be held liable for retaliation if there is a direct and substantial relation between the retaliatory action and the harm it caused the employee, as long as the link is not “too remote or indirect.” Based on the facts, it concluded that it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that Captain Colarulo’s retaliatory intent had a direct and substantial relation to Officer Carnation being fired, since his actions led to the PBI’s investigation. As a result, it upheld the jury’s verdict in favor of Officer Carnation.

Retaliation violates both New Jersey and New York anti-discrimination law. Contact an employment law attorney at Rabner Baumgart Ben-Asher & Nirenberg if you have been fired, harassed, or experienced another adverse employment action because you complained about discrimination at work.

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