Plaintiff, Dulaney alleged that he was fired for “job abandonment” after a series of medical incidents, including an incident involving a “severe depressive episode” for which Dulaney eventually was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Dulaney claimed the County was responsible for setting up the evaluation in order for him to be cleared to return to work. The County never set up the appointment, allegedly because the Union told the County that Dulaney's problems, including the “severe depressive episode,” stemmed from Dulaney’s illegal drug use.
Accordingly, before the District Court, Dulaney alleged that: (1) the County failed to set up a required psychological evaluation and terminated him because it perceived him as being an illegal drug user; and (2) the Union discriminated against Dulaney by providing the County with this allegedly false information that Dulaney was an illegal drug user.
The District Court found in favor of the defendants because (1) Dulaney failed to establish disability discrimination based upon perceived drug use; (2) there was no evidence of a connection between the County’s employment action and Dulaney’s perceived drug use; (3) there was no evidence that the County failed to schedule an evaluation for Dulaney when it was required to do so; and finally (4) the County articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Dulaney’s termination (that being, Dulaney refused to return to work after having been cleared to do so).
On appeal, Dulaney argued that, among other things, he established disability discrimination because he offered evidence that the County regarded him as disabled. Also, Dulaney argued that the County could be found liable under a “cat's paw” theory of causation because the person who recommended Dulaney's termination knew of the drug-use rumors surrounding Dulaney.
In order to establish a case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show (1) s/he is disabled, (2) s/he is a qualified individual, and (3) s/he was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of his or her disability.
The ADA defines “disability” as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual, (2) a record of such impairment, or (3) being regarded as having an impairment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) regulations, “regarded as” having an impairment means that an individual:
(1) has a physical or mental impairment that does not substantially limit major life activities but is treated by a covered entity as constituting such limitation; (2) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities only as a result of the attitudes of others toward such impairment; or (3) has none of the impairments defined in paragraph (h)(1) or (2) of this section but is treated by a covered entity as having a substantially limiting impairment.
Thus, the Court notes, an employment decision is illegal if it’s based on an employee’s real or imagined physical or mental impairment, which the employer regards to substantially limit a major life activity.
After a plaintiff establishes disability discrimination under the ADA, the employer is given an opportunity to offer a legitimate reason for its alleged discriminatory employment decision. After an employer offers an explanation, then the plaintiff must show that the employer’s reason was a pretext for discrimination. A pretext is generally an explanation that is offered in place of the truth.
One way a plaintiff may show pretext is by trying to demonstrate to the court that, rather than the employer’s proffered reason, an employer was more likely motivated by a discriminatory purpose or object. Another way to show pretext is to show that the employer's explanation is simply untrustworthy. To this end, a plaintiff may point to weaknesses, inconsistencies, and the like. Ultimately a plaintiff must show that the defendant-employer’s decisions were motivated by discriminatory intent.
Because the defendant-employer will likely offer a reasonable explanation for its decision to terminate the employee, an employee must have a tool to uncover an employer’s pretext. Such a tool may be found in the “cat’s paw” theory of causation.
The “cat’s paw theory” of causation derives from a 17th century fable entitled “The Monkey and the Cat.” In the fable, a smart monkey tricks a not-so-clever cat to gather chestnuts from a roasting fire. During the cat’s endeavor, she burns her paw allowing the monkey to easily grab and eat the chestnuts. Thus, the term “cat’s paw” has come to mean one who is used by another to accomplish his or her purposes.
In the employment discrimination context, a “cat’s paw” scenario arises when an employee who has a discriminatory purpose but lacks decision making power uses a decision-maker to make a discriminatory employment action. Here, Dulaney tried to establish that Chief Rogers who made the recommendation to terminate Dulaney to the final decision maker, Chief Lorenzo, based her recommendation on rumors of Dulaney’s alleged drug use.
However, the Court found that Dulaney failed to establish that the person who recommended Dulaney be terminated regarded him as a drug user. Furthermore, Dulaney did not establish that the person who recommended his termination had a discriminatory purpose.
Finally, the Court noted that Dulaney never offered any evidence that the decision-maker was even aware of any drug-use rumors in connection to him. Rather, the Court noted that the evidence showed that the termination process actually began because of a change in the payroll accounting system, which forced Chief Rogers to determine whether Dulaney had abandoned his position with the County.
The Court found that, because Dulaney did not establish a disability discrimination case under the ADA, it did not need not reach the issue of whether the County's articulated reason for firing Dulaney was a pretext for discrimination.
The “cat’s paw” theory of causation is of particular interest for “regarded as” ADA employment claims. The “cat’s paw” theory of causation is worth discussing and highlighting as it could possibly assist future plaintiffs bringing ADA employment discrimination claims in proving they have been regarded as having a disability by their employer. Instead of focusing on the pretext or explanation offered by the decision-making employee, under the cat’s paw theory of liability, a Court would focus on the workplace environment in order to determine whether the plaintiff may have been generally “regarded as” having a disability. The more difficult connection, as evidenced in this case, is the next level of causation. That being the plaintiff’s ability to show, through actual evidence, that the decision-making employee’s adverse employment action was the result of viewing the plaintiff as having an actual or perceived disability. Nevertheless, the “cat’s paw theory” of causation is an important tool which prospective ADA plaintiffs should be made aware of in bringing forth a claim of disability discrimination, especially for “regarded as” claims.