Friday, September 24, 2010

Beware the Cat's Paw

In Lindsey v. Walgreen Co., No. 10-1036 (7th Cir. August 11, 2010), the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected a former employee’s “cat’s paw” argument. The plaintiff, Katie Lindsey, was 53 years old when she sued her former employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). A few years after she began her employment with the drug store chain Walgreens, Ms. Lindsey was promoted from staff pharmacist to pharmacy manager by her district pharmacy supervisor. Before long, Walgreens received complaints from Ms. Lindsey’s co-workers, and the same district pharmacy supervisor determined that Ms. Lindsey was not fit to continue in a managerial position (in part because she allegedly was not following pharmacy procedures). The district pharmacy supervisor demoted Ms. Lindsey back to a staff pharmacist position, transferred her to another store, and warned her that she would be fired the next time she failed to follow pharmacy procedures. The district pharmacy supervisor later determined that Ms. Lindsey had once again violated company policy and ultimately terminated her employment.

After filing suit in federal court, Ms. Lindsey alleged several theories of discrimination, including the "cat’s paw" theory, a phrase used in the employment law world that refers to an allegedly unbiased decision-maker who is used as a proxy for an allegedly biased manager/employee. Ms. Lindsey argued that the district pharmacy supervisor was a cat’s paw for a co-worker, who she claimed disliked her because of her age. Ms. Lindsey insisted that the district pharmacy manager decided to fire her after “blindly relying” on biased information from the co-worker. Ms. Lindsey alleged that her new co-workers (after she had been transferred) called her “lazy” and “slow” and questioned why Walgreens exiled “old,” “demoted” pharmacists to their store. She also alleged that the biased co-worker made disparaging remarks about her age and abilities. The court rejected Ms. Lindsey’s argument because it determined that Walgreens employer had adequately demonstrated that its employment decision was based on an independent evaluation/review and was not tainted by any alleged bias.