Removed Department Chair’s Age-Discrimination Claim Rejected

Global HR

​The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined a removed department chair’s Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) claim failed because the ultimate decision-maker conducted an independent investigation and based his decision on multiple sources.

The plaintiff began teaching at Bradley University in 2008. In 2012, he was promoted to associate professor and was elected chair of his department. The plaintiff applied for a promotion to full professorship in 2016 and 2017. Both times he was rejected, in part, based on the dean’s recommendation. In 2018, the plaintiff was promoted to full professorship.

In 2017, the university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs removed the plaintiff as chair of the department. The provost based his decision on, among other things, information obtained during two investigations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, one completed by the faculty grievance committee and one completed by a formal, internal Title IX investigation committee. The provost determined his decision to remove the plaintiff as chair was necessary to address the “problems of culture and toxicity” in the department.

The plaintiff filed discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the related state agency against Bradley University. In his first charge, the plaintiff alleged that he was unlawfully removed as department chair after he failed to comply with the dean’s request to “make the jobs of older faculty less desirable” so they would retire. Later, the plaintiff filed a second charge alleging he was unlawfully denied a promotion in retaliation for filing the EEOC charge.

He then sued Bradley University, alleging he was denied a promotion and removed as department chair for opposing an alleged age-discrimination policy in violation of the ADEA. The plaintiff’s claim relied on the cat’s paw theory, which is when an individual deceives the actual decision-maker “in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action.”

The plaintiff alleged that the dean influenced the provost’s decision to remove him as department chair. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the dean generated the complaint that resulted in the Title IX investigations and conducted a false narrative about the plaintiff during the investigations.

The district court granted summary judgment for Bradley University on the claim related to the plaintiff’s demotion from chair of the department and determined his denial-of-promotion claim was time-barred.

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In affirming, the 7th Circuit explained the cat’s paw theory requires both discriminatory motive and causation and, in this instance, there was no causation. The plaintiff was unable to show the dean caused the decision because the provost did not rely singularly or wholly on the dean when the provost decided to remove the plaintiff as chair. The 7th Circuit specifically noted that while the dean was interviewed as part of the Title IX investigations, multiple other faculty members were also interviewed.

The 7th Circuit also agreed that the plaintiff’s denial-of-promotion claim was time-barred.

Sinha v. Bradley University, 9th Cir., No. 20-1848 (April 26, 2021).

Professional Pointer: This case presents a reminder that employers may avoid liability, including claims of cat’s paw liability, if the decision-maker in an adverse employment action considers and reviews documents from multiple sources of information and conducts in independent investigation of the facts before making a decision.

Caitlin M. Andersen is an attorney with Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Andersen PA, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Minneapolis. 

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