Appellate Court Affirms Grant of Summary Judgment in Reverse Discrimination Case Holding that Fighting at Work Justifies Termination — Our Chicago Business Trial Attorneys Represent Employers and Employees in Discrimination and Overtime Lawsuits


Johnson, an African-American woman, was employed at Koppers’ plant from 1995 until her termination in 2008. She had been disciplined for sleeping at her desk in the laboratory, for smoking in the lunch room, for not punching out on the time clock, for fighting with a security guard, and for an altercation with a white male co-worker, O’Connell. Without interviewing Johnson, the plant manager determined that both O’Connell and Johnson were at fault and decided that Johnson should be punished more severely because of her disciplinary history and O’Connell’s allegations of racial harassment. The plant manager warned Johnson that future incidents would lead to termination. O’Connell received a less severe warning letter. The Union filed a grievance on Johnson’s behalf and Johnson’s warning was reduced to a memo that summarized her work obligations and employment status. Johnson was fired after another altercation with O’Connell. A witness indicated that Johnson shoved O’Connell, who filed a police report.

Johnson filed suit, alleging discrimination on the basis of her race and gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e, and 42 U.S.C. 1983. Johnson argued that her claim should succeed under the cat’s paw theory because her co-worker, O’Connell, harbored discriminatory animus against her race and gender. As O’Connell had no power to terminate Johnson himself, Johnson argued that O’Connell falsely reported that she called
him racial and gender-based slurs on one occasion and pushed him following a separate verbal altercation, in order to induce the plant manager to terminate Johnson’s employment at

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the the employer, Koppers and reject Johnson’s claims holding a false report by O’Connell, standing alone, is insufficient to establish discriminatory animus. While it is clear from the record that O’Connell and Johnson did not like each other, Johnson has provided no evidence to indicate that O’Connell’s animosity was motivated by discriminatory bias against her race or gender.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Koppers. In affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit held:

In order to succeed under the cat’s paw theory, Johnson needs to show that O’Connell, motivated by discriminatory animus, concocted a false story about Johnson, and that
O’Connell’s story was the proximate cause of Johnson’s termination. See Jajeh v. Cook County, 678 F.3d 560, 572 (7th Cir. 2012). That simply is not the case here. The proximate cause of
Johnson’s termination was actually the April 2008 physical altercation between Johnson and O’Connell that was witnessed by an independent third party. … Johnson’s claim fails because she cannot prove that she met Koppers’ legitimate job expectations, or that Koppers’ non-discriminatory reason for termination was pretextual. While Johnson correctly points out that there is no evidence to suggest that she had not been adequately performing her duties as a lab technician, her termination stemmed from a specific incident of insubordination, not a failure to perform her daily tasks. Johnson’s insubordination—pushing a co-coworker—clearly does not meet Koppers’ legitimate job expectations, even if she was an otherwise satisfactory lab technician.

You can view the Seventh Circuit opinion here

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