Sexist Chief = Liable Council for Violation of the Law Against Discrimination – Not the Cat’s paw but the Chief’s paw that matters.

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Sexist Chief = Liable Council for Violation of the Law Against Discrimination – Not the Cat’s paw but the Chief’s paw that matters.

By:  Jennifer Vorih, Esq., and Ty Hyderally, Esq.

In a novel gender discrimination case, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that, “actions taken to accommodate discriminatory views can support liability to the same extent as actions taken based on personally held discriminatory views.” Meade v. Twp. of Livingston, 2021 N.J. LEXIS 1324, *39.  The Court reversed summary judgment and remanded the case for trial.

Michele Meade served as the Township Manager of Livingston Township from 2005 to 2016, when she was terminated by the Township Council. The Council based its decision in part on Meade’s inability to effectively supervise the Chief of Police, Craig Handschuch. Meade alleged that the Council’s decision to terminate her – and later replace her with a male Township Manager — was a way of appeasing Handschuch, who was a sexist man. Meade presented evidence that two Council members openly discussed Handschuch’s sexism and his unwillingness to be supervised by a woman. One Council member, Michael Silverman, admitted to stating to other Council members, regarding Handschuch, that “Michele [Meade] would not be having this problem if her name was Michael.” Meade also certified that another Council member, Al Anthony stated to her that Handschuch “did not like reporting to a woman,” and further suggested that Handschuch could report to Anthony, instead, who had become Mayor of Livingston. Anthony denied these comments.

Russian blue cat on white surface

Handschuch had serious performance deficiencies, since at least 2011. Handschuch showed very poor management and leadership in a 2013 Emergency Services Unit (ESU) training incident which resulted in panic and an unnecessary school lockdown. Meade took Handschuch and the ESU to task for this incident, and a member of the ESU filed criminal charges against Meade. Meade was acquitted of both criminal charges. Even though Meade had the authority to terminate Handschuch, while the criminal charges were pending, they made it difficult for Meade to properly discipline and/or terminate Handschuch without risking a retaliation lawsuit.

The Council advised Meade to consult with Livingston’s labor counsel, who recommended that an independent, outside investigation be conducted. The labor attorney also advised Meade to get the support of the Council in order to terminate Handschuch. Meade thus requested the Council’s approval for the investigation and sought their support for issuing charges against Handschuch, but the Council refused both.

Having thus tied Meade’s hands regarding disciplining or terminating Handschuch, the Council then terminated Meade, in large part for her purported inability to manage Handschuch.

The Court focused heavily on the two comments from Council members Silverman and Anthony. Even though Anthony denied the comments Meade attributed to him and evidence was presented that Silverman’s comment was made in jest, the Court held that a reasonable jury could find that “Livingston’s asserted reasons for terminating her were mere pretext.” Id. at  *31.

While many attorneys may have expected the Court to adopt the Cat’s Paw Theory in this case, the Court declined to do so. “The cat’s paw theory of liability applies to ’a situation in which a biased subordinate, who lacks decision-making power, uses the formal decisionmaker as a dupe in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action.’” Id. at *36. Here, the Court stated that, “the cat’s paw theory is not implicated by this case.” Id. at *39.

The Court does not make clear the reason for its claim that this is not a “cat’s paw” case, stating, “Meade is not alleging that a subordinate influenced her employer to fire her; rather, Meade is alleging that the Council’s decision to fire Meade was influenced by the Chief’s own allegedly discriminatory views.” Id. at *36. Perhaps the Court’s distinction lies in the fact that the Council here was not a “dupe,” as is required in a cat’s paw case. Here, Handschuch did not hide his sexism and snooker the Council into believing that Meade should be fired due to poor performance; rather, the Council was well aware of Handschuch’s discriminatory animus toward Meade, which influenced the Council’s decision to terminate Meade.

Cat’s paw or chief’s paw, the Court held that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the Council’s decision was tainted by sexism, even though that sexism originated with Meade’s subordinate. As a result, Michele Meade gets her day in court.

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