ADEA Retaliation Claim based on the Cat's Paw Theory Fails

On April 26, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment for an employer on retaliation and discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA").  Sinha v. Bradley University, No. 20-1848 (7th Cir. April 26, 2021).  One ADEA retaliation claim failed for lack of proximate cause under the cat's paw theory of liability, and the other claim was time-barred.  The plaintiff alleged that his employer discriminated against him on the basis of sex, in violation of Title VII, and retaliated against him for opposing the employer's purported (discriminatory) age discrimination policy, in violation of the ADEA.

The plaintiff sued in federal court for employment discrimination and retaliation.  The sex discrimination claim was dismissed, leaving only the ADEA claims.  Plaintiff claimed his employer retaliated against him for refusing to implement age-discrimination policies that he believed were adverse to older faculty members by removing him as department chair and denying his application for promotion.  The ADEA protects workers who are at least 40 years of age from age-based employment discrimination, and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for opposing age discrimination.  Under the ADEA, an employee must prove that age was the 'but-for' cause of the adverse job action.  A plaintiff may defeat a summary judgment motion by establish a material fact question as to whether the decision-maker acted on a discriminatory animus.

A plaintiff may also prevail, without showing that the decision-maker had a discriminatory animus, under the cat's paw theory, when a biased supervisor or subordinate, without decision-making power, uses the formal decision-maker as a dupe to trigger a discriminatory adverse job action.  Even if the decision-maker conducted an independent investigation, an employer may still be liable.  Proximate cause requires only some direct connection between the injury and conduct; "only those links that are too remote, purely contingent, or indirect are excluded."  A biased supervisor may still proximately cause an adverse employment action if the decision-maker's investigation takes the supervisor's input into account without separately justify the decision.  On the other hand, as long as the employer's investigation results in an adverse employment action because of reasons unrelated to the supervisor's biased action, the employer will not be liable.

The plaintiff alleged that a biased supervisor exercised controlling influence on the decision of the ultimate decision-maker.  He claimed that the supervisor invented a false narrative about him that prompted the decision-maker to remove him as chair.  The plaintiff must demonstrate that the supervisor harbored a discriminatory animus, and that his input was a proximate cause of the adverse employment action.  The plaintiff could not show that the supervisor caused his removal, because the decision-maker drew his conclusion independent of any influence from the supervisor.  He removed the plaintiff based on a faculty grievance committee report and a Title IX investigation report.  He requested the investigation and made an independent decision "that did not singularly or wholly depend on the supervisor."  Therefore, the supervisor's animus did not proximately cause the plaintiff's removal.

Additionally, the plaintiff's denial-of-promotion claim was time-barred because he failed to file a charge of discrimination for that claim within 300 days of the alleged unlawful employment action, which bars his claim in federal court.