On September 2, 2009, Judge David Coar of the Northern District of Illinois overturned a jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff employee in Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chicago Park District. The plaintiff (Caucasian) was a program director at the South Shore Cultural Center. She was both hired and terminated by her Caucasian boss. However, during her employment, the plaintiff reported directly to an African-American supervisor. The plaintiff’s supervisor, as well as two other supervisors, commented on the plaintiff’s performance issues throughout her employment. The African-American supervisor prepared a “last straw” memo implying termination was appropriate based on prior performance issues, as well as an incident where the supervisor claimed the plaintiff was “culturally insensitive.” The same day the “last straw” memo was prepared, the plaintiff was notified of her termination. The plaintiff argued that her African-American supervisor’s alleged racial comments affected the decision-maker’s determination to terminate the plaintiff.

The plaintiff relied on the “cat’s paw” theory of liability to support her race discrimination claim. Under this theory, the employee must show that the employer’s decision was based solely on tainted information received from a biased co-worker or supervisor. The theory is named after a fable involving a monkey who convinces an unwitting cat to pull chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns her paw, enabling the monkey to gobble up all the chestnuts.

The Court stated that the cat’s paw theory does not require the decision-maker to make a wholly independent decision but instead the decision maker must “refrain from ‘blind reliance’ on one ‘singular influence.’ “The Court found that the decision-maker consulted with several other employees regarding the plaintiff’s conduct, reviewed unrebutted documentation regarding her deficient performance and made the decision one week before the allegedly biased supervisor wrote the “last straw” memo recommending the plaintiff’s termination. Thus, the Court concluded that the decision-maker did not act as the “cat’s paw” for the allegedly biased African-American supervisor.

It is imperative that employers make sure they have all relevant information and thoroughly investigate before taking an adverse employment action. In addition, employers must ensure the decision is made on objective, non-biased criteria. “Take my word for it” is not sufficient and should never be the employer’s standard for employment decisions.