Court Discusses Municipal, Individual, and “Cat’s Paw” Liability in Race Discrimination Case

In McFadden v. Cty. of Monroe, No. 14-2167, 2016 WL 7107468 (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2016) (Summary Order), the court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s race discrimination and retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Municipal Liability

As to municipal liability, the court explained that “[t]o prevail on a [42 U.S.C.] § 1981 discrimination claim brought against a municipality, such as the County, the plaintiff is required to show that the challenged acts were performed pursuant to a municipal policy or custom.”

The court held that the district court properly dismissed the County from plaintiff’s first cause of action for hostile work environment under § 1981, since no such evidence was presented at trial.

Individual Liability

As to individual liability, the court explained that “[l]ack of authority to terminate or discipline a subordinate is not dispositive … because an individual may be held liable for retaliation under § 1981 if that individual is personally involved in the alleged deprivation.” Here, no such personal involvement was shown.

However, “even assuming that [the individual in question] was sufficiently personally involved in the alleged adverse employment actions to give rise to potential liability, [plaintiff] points to no evidence that [the individual] acted at any point in time with the requisite intent to retaliate against [plaintiff].”

“Cat’s Paw” Liability

Finally, the court held that the district court did not commit “plain error” in not charging the jury on a “cat’s paw” theory of liability. Specifically, “any error associated with failing to charge the jury on a cat’s paw theory of liability was not plain, as the Second Circuit had neither accepted nor rejected the cat’s paw approach at the time of the jury charge.”

In addition, “[t]o the extent [plaintiff] is claiming that the district court should have instructed the jury that a retaliation plaintiff may also satisfy the causation or motive element by presenting a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would support the inference that a retaliatory animus was at work, the district court committed no error, let alone plain error.”

The “convincing mosaic metaphor” is not (per the Seventh Circuit) a legal test or legal requirement. “In any event, the district court properly instructed the jury that circumstantial evidence is of equal value to direct evidence, and that [plaintiff] could prove that the defendants were motivated by an unlawful purpose by presenting circumstantial evidence to that effect.”