We’re familiar with cat’s paw theories of liability: a plaintiff might prove he or she has been subjected to discriminatory treatment (even though the decision maker obviously lacked any animus) by showing that a co-worker had a discriminatory animus and caused the plaintiff to get fired. One recent plaintiff took it a step further. In Johnson v. Koppers, Inc., No. 12-2561 (7th Cir. August 8, 2013), the plaintiff asserted that a co-worker got her fired by falsely accusing her of using “a colorful array of racial and gender-based slurs” and of pushing him. According to the plaintiff, it was a “classic case of projection.” The co-worker projected his bias onto her. The court rejected the projection theory: even if the co-worker had made up the story about plaintiff using slurs, this was not evidence that the co-worker himself had racial or gender biases. The plaintiff was speculating about projection. (It probably helped the court that the plaintiff’s discharge was based on a later fight between the plaintiff and the co-worker and the fact that there was an independent witness to the later fight.)
Cat’s paw liability still requires proof that the co-worker acted out of illegal bias, and cat’s paw ”projection” theories are still relegated to Tom & Jerry cartoons absent actual proof of genuine projection.