Meade v. Twp. of Livingston: Subordinate’s Indirect Influence Can Leave Employers Open to Liability Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

On December 30, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a case involving an allegation that a subordinate’s discriminatory animus indirectly influenced an employment termination decision in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

In Meade v. Twp. of Livingston, the employee, a town manager, claimed that the town council decided to terminate her employment due to the gender bias of a male subordinate, the town police chief. Contrary to the trial court and appellate division, the Supreme Court concluded that there was a genuine dispute as to whether the police chief’s alleged bias influenced the town council’s decision, thereby rendering the case appropriate for a trial. In so ruling, the court noted that the matter was not a cat’s paw case (as argued by amicus curae National Employment Lawyers Association of New Jersey) because the town manager was not alleging the police chief influenced the town council to fire her, but that the town council’s decision simply was influenced by the police chief’s own purportedly discriminatory view of women.

In coming to its decision, the court walked through the familiar McDonnell-Douglas burden shifting framework. It first explained that the town manager presented a prima facie case of employment discrimination: (1) the town manager was a member of a protected group (female); (2) she satisfactorily performed her job, as evidenced by her eleven years of service; (3) the town terminated her employment; and (4) the town replaced her with a member of another protected group (male). Moving to the next step in the framework, the court then acknowledged that the town met its burden of producing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination – namely, the town manager’s alleged poor performance. This evidence included the town manager’s purported failure to manage and discipline the police chief and, in particular, the town manager’s alleged failure to terminate the police chief for purported performance deficiencies. Looking to the next step in the analysis, the court decided that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding by a jury that the reason proffered by the employer was pretext, including evidence that some town councilmembers had expressed the view that the police chief refused to accept a woman as his supervisor, a view that one councilmember shared with other councilmembers. “A reasonable jury could determine that the [c]ouncil fired [the town manager] because it believed that she was unable to control the [police chief] as a result of her gender, in violation of the LAD,” according to the court.

In examining the town manager’s alleged failure to terminate the police chief’s employment for poor performance, the court discounted the town manager’s statutory authority to do so. In this regard, the court focused on (1) the town manager’s decision to hold off on terminating the police chief’s employment based on a suggestion from the town’s labor counsel to consider having an independent investigator review the police chief’s performance; and (2) the town council’s decision not to authorize such an investigation.

As to the cat’s paw theory of liability, the court explained that theory applies to “a situation in which a biased subordinate, who lacks decisionmaking power, uses the formal decisionmaker as a dupe in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action.” The court noted that the town manager was not alleging that the police chief influenced the town council to fire her. What the town manager alleged was that the police chief’s own allegedly discriminatory views influenced the town council’s decision to terminate her employment. The court explained that the case simply is one of indirect action, where a non-decisionmaker’s discriminatory views allegedly influenced the decisionmaker to take an adverse employment action against the employee. The court emphasized that “actions taken to accommodate discriminatory views can support liability to the same extent as actions taken based on personally held discriminatory views.”

An important takeaway from the decision is that an employer can be held liable for discrimination in violation of the LAD if an adverse employment decision is indirectly influenced by a subordinate’s discriminatory animus.

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