Court Dismisses Retaliation Claim Against Target; “Cat’s Paw” Theory Inapplicable

In Jones v. Target Corporation, 15-CV-4672, 2018 WL 1377301 (EDNY March 16, 2018), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, defendant terminated plaintiff for violating its drug-free workplace policy after marijuana was found in the employee locker room. According to her, the marijuana was brought to the attention of Human Resources by her supervisor, White, whom she accused of sexual harassment.

Since plaintiff conceded that the decision to terminate her employment was not made by White, but rather asserted that White falsely accused her of bringing marijuana to work in retaliation for complaining about his conduct, the court assessed plaintiff’s claim under a “cat’s paw” theory of liability, under which “an employer may be held liable for unlawful retaliation because of an employee who ‘manipulates’ an employer into acting as mere conduit for his retaliatory intent.” See Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Serv., Inc., 835 F.3d 267, 273 (2d Cir. 2016).

In dismissing plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the court explained:

Here, Plaintiff’s allegation that White falsely accused her of violating Target’s Drug-Free Workplace policy, without more, is insufficient to sustain her claim. Plaintiff does not dispute Defendant’s assertion that once White and Pride reported that they found the bag of marijuana in the employee locker room, Vigliotti and Wiese conducted an investigation by reviewing the surveillance footage, and made an independent determination that the bag fell from Plaintiff’s person. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 102; see also Vigliotti Dep. ¶¶ 66–68.) Plaintiff has failed to provide evidence that Vigliotti and Wiese “blindly credited” any assertions from White, Vasquez, 835 F.3d at 276, or otherwise acted negligently in a way that gave White an “outsize role” in the decision to terminate her employment, id. at 275. While White and Pride recovered the drugs, there is no evidence that White ever attributed it to Plaintiff, or that he had any role in the investigation that followed. In the absence of any such evidence, Plaintiff’s retaliation claim cannot withstand summary judgment.

The court concluded that “[p]laintiff has not presented evidence suggesting that Defendant negligently relied on any accusations made by White” or “that Defendant’s reliance on the conclusion of its investigation was unreasonable, or offered any other basis to challenge its reason for the termination of her employment.” Plaintiff therefore failed to establish pretext.

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