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A ‘Sexist’ Police Chief, A Fired Female Township Manager Who Supervised the Chief, and a New Jersey Supreme Court Ruling About How Far the Law Against Discrimination Reaches

A lot of times, if you’re pursuing a workplace discrimination case here in New Jersey, the perpetrator is the decisionmaker who inflicted the workplace harm you suffered. However, what can you do when that person was actually a subordinate? Depending on the facts of your case, you may still be able to succeed. A new ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court is a reminder that, even if the facts of your situation seem unfavorable, never assume. Always reach out to an experienced New Jersey workplace discrimination lawyer before deciding whether or not you have a case.

In that recent sex discrimination case, the plaintiff was a female township manager who was terminated in 2016. When the township’s council fired the manager, they asserted several areas of allegedly deficient performance, including the supervisor of subordinates.

One of those subordinates was C.H., the man who the manager had promoted to the role of Police Chief. The chief allegedly had many problems, including failing to attend multiple meetings with the manager, failing to provide documentation that the manager demanded of him, and staging a police training exercise that involved an armed man in camouflage in a parking lot next door to a preschool.

Several months after the preschool incident, a member of the council commented during a political gathering that the manager, whose first name was Michele, “would not be having this problem [with the chief] if her name was Michael.” That comment was made to at least four other members of the council.

The chief allegedly continued in ignoring demands the manager made, including declining to appear at meetings of the township council. The chief’s numerous shortcomings and the manager’s failure to correct them or remove the chief allegedly were the bases for the manager’s 2016 firing.

An Adverse Action Rooted in Appeasement of a ‘Sexist’ Subordinate

According to the manager’s lawsuit, though, the real reason for her termination and replacement with a man was “to appease the sexist male Police Chief.” The trial judge decided that the township couldn’t be liable for discrimination because the discrimination the manager alleged stemmed from her interactions with the police chief and, because the chief was her subordinate, the township council couldn’t be at fault.

The Supreme Court disagreed and revived the woman’s case. The woman had a strong enough case to avoid dismissal on summary judgment because she had alleged more than just misconduct by the chief. The manager had evidence that multiple council members, and also the mayor, were aware that the chief refused to accept a woman as his boss and chafed against reporting to a woman but that, rather than working to address the problem with the chief, the council simply fired the manager and replaced her with a male manager so that the chief could begin reporting to a man.

That was sufficient proof for a trial, according to the court. A “reasonable jury could conclude — in the combined light of [the manager’s] evidence challenging the legitimacy of the other cited areas of dissatisfaction and the Council’s own focus on the ongoing difficulties with [the chief] — that [the manager’s] gender played a role in the Council’s termination of her employment, contrary to the” Law Against Discrimination. The high court’s ruling was in line with previous decisions where the courts allowed plaintiffs to proceed with cases “predicated on claims that a non-decisionmaker’s discriminatory views impermissibly influenced the decisionmaker to take an adverse employment action against” the plaintiff.

In this case, the manager succeeded because she had allegations of discriminatory conduct by the council. That’s not to say, however, that a worker could not win a workplace discrimination claim based strictly upon the discriminatory animus and actions of a subordinate. There exists a legal concept called the “cat’s paw theory of liability.” Courts have applied this theory to discrimination cases where “a biased subordinate” engaged “in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action.” Because the manager’s allegation did not present proof of a deliberate scheme by the chief to get her fired, the Supreme Court declined to adopt such a theory of liability in this case. That’s not to say that, with different facts, a different plaintiff might not be able to succeed under such a theory.

Discrimination law can be complex and it is frequently evolving. If you’ve suffered harm at work because of someone else’s discriminatory animus, make sure you have a team of knowledgeable professionals by your side.  Get in touch with the experienced New Jersey sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to get the partner you need for the outcome you deserve. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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