Ossanna v. Nike, Inc.

Decision Date18 July 2019
Docket NumberSC S065889
Citation365 Or. 196,445 P.3d 281
Parties Douglas OSSANNA, an individual, Respondent on Review, v. NIKE, INC., an Oregon corporation, Petitioner on Review.
CourtOregon Supreme Court

Brenda K. Baumgart, Stoel Rives LLP, Portland, argued the cause and filed the briefs for petitioner on review. Also on the briefs were Amy Joseph Pedersen and James N. Westwood.

Michael J. Estok, Lindsay Hart, LLP, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for respondent on review. Also on the brief were Glen McClendon and Alice Newlin.

Before Walters, Chief Justice, and Balmer, Nakamoto, Flynn, Duncan, Nelson, and Garrett, Justices.**


In this employment action involving Oregon statutory retaliation claims, we decide whether the trial court erred by refusing to give an instruction regarding the "cat’s paw" theory of establishing discriminatory or retaliatory motivation. After being terminated by defendant Nike, Inc., plaintiff Douglas Ossanna sued his former employer. Plaintiff alleged, among other things, that Nike had unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his safety complaints and for whistleblowing. Based on his theory that his supervisors held a retaliatory bias against him, plaintiff requested a "cat’s paw" jury instruction informing the jury that, in considering his claims, it could impute a subordinate supervisor’s biased retaliatory motive to Nike’s formal decision-maker, an upper manager with firing authority, if the biased subordinate supervisor influenced, affected, or was involved in the decision to fire plaintiff. The trial court declined to give the instruction, and the jury returned a verdict for Nike. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court’s refusal to give the requested "cat’s paw" instruction was an instructional error that prejudiced plaintiff. Ossanna v. Nike, Inc. , 290 Or. App. 16, 415 P.3d 55 (2018).

We allowed Nike’s petition for review to address the "cat’s paw" doctrine under Oregon law and whether the trial court erred in refusing to give the proffered instruction. In deciding that question, we reach the following legal conclusions. We hold that the "cat’s paw" doctrine is a viable theory in Oregon. The instruction on the doctrine in this case would have permitted the jury to impute the unlawful bias of a subordinate supervisor who lacked decision-making authority to the employer’s authorized manager and ostensibly independent decision-maker, if the biased supervisor influenced or was involved in the adverse employment decision or decision-making process. For an employer to be liable, however, a plaintiff relying on the imputed-bias theory also must establish a causal connection between the supervisor’s bias and the adverse employment action; the causation requirement for the claim at issue controls the degree of causation required to impose liability.

We also conclude that the trial court erred in declining to give plaintiff’s "cat’s paw" jury instruction, because the instruction was a correct and applicable statement of the law, and that the instructional error prejudiced plaintiff. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals, reverse the judgment of the trial court as to plaintiff’s retaliation claims, and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.


We review a trial court’s failure to give a requested jury instruction for errors of law, State v. Reyes-Camarena , 330 Or. 431, 441, 7 P.3d 522 (2000), and evaluate the evidence in the light most favorable to the establishment of the facts necessary to require the instruction, Carter v. Mote , 285 Or. 275, 279, 590 P.2d 1214 (1979). We therefore recite the facts in the light most favorable to the giving of plaintiff’s "cat’s paw" instruction.

From 2007 until his termination in 2013, plaintiff was a licensed electrician in Nike’s maintenance department. In 2009, Nike established an electrician apprenticeship program so that participating employees could obtain a Limited Maintenance Electrician license. Portland Community College’s (PCC) Metro Limited Maintenance Electrician Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC) administered the program. The program required an apprentice seeking licensure to log 4,000 hours of on-the-job training under the supervision of a licensed electrician and to take classes at PCC.

Between the 2009 inception of the apprenticeship program at Nike and 2012, plaintiff repeatedly voiced his concerns about the safety of apprentices performing unsupervised electrical work and about Nike’s improper administration of the program in violation of JATC requirements. Initially, plaintiff spoke about his concerns with Dan Delgado, his direct supervisor and the person in charge of the apprenticeship program at Nike. But eventually, seeing no corrective measures, plaintiff escalated his concerns up Nike’s chain of command. He communicated with—in ascending order of superiority—Mark Treppens, maintenance operations manager; Nellie St. Jacques, facilities director; and Deb Hellmer-Steele, senior director of global corporate services. Plaintiff also conveyed his concerns to Stephanie Hammer, Nike’s operational risk manager. Plaintiff raised concerns about the general mismanagement of the apprenticeship program and reported two specific electrocution incidents that had resulted from unsupervised apprentice work. Despite the reports, however, plaintiff did not observe any changes appropriately responsive to his concerns.

In December 2011, Nike had hired Treppens as its maintenance operations manager. Treppens supervised Delgado, plaintiff’s direct supervisor. Soon after coming aboard, Treppens learned of plaintiff’s safety concerns. In an email to himself, Treppens noted that an apprentice had reported overhearing plaintiff and another licensed electrician discuss filing a complaint with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). During a subsequent one-on-one meeting with plaintiff, Treppens informed plaintiff that he would not be considered for a supervisor opening "because of the past." Plaintiff understood Treppens to be referring to his past safety complaints. Plaintiff then shared the exchange with St. Jacques, prompting Treppens to call plaintiff into his office, where he denied having made the comment. Despite the foreshadowed outcome, plaintiff applied for the supervisor opening; he did not receive the promotion.

In February 2012, a resigning licensed electrician discussed his concerns about the apprenticeship program in an exit interview and mentioned that plaintiff shared those concerns. That prompted an employee relations manager to ask plaintiff about the safety concerns, which plaintiff confirmed. The resigning employee filed a safety complaint with JATC.

In May 2012, responding to that complaint, JATC conducted a site visit at the Nike campus to review the apprenticeship program. Shortly after, plaintiff reached out to Katrina Cloud, the JATC administrator, to express his safety concerns. That same month, plaintiff also filed a safety complaint with OSHA. Plaintiff remained in communication with Cloud as JATC investigated Nike’s compliance with the apprenticeship program criteria. At one point, Delgado called plaintiff into his office, locked the door, and warned plaintiff that, if he provided any information to JATC, he would not "be allowed on this campus again."

In late December 2012, the Nike campus was in "PowerDown" mode, during which time campus-related services were scaled back or shut down for the holidays. Plaintiff was not scheduled to work during PowerDown. But two contractors needing to complete a maintenance project at Nike’s "Bo Jackson" sports facility contacted plaintiff about accessing the building. Plaintiff showed up with his all-access employee badge to let the contractors into the building. After reviewing the contractors’ work, plaintiff suggested that they shoot baskets in the Bo Jackson gym. The floor, they noticed, had recently been varnished, but they concluded that using the gym would not damage the floor. Plaintiff’s son joined them, and the four shot baskets for 20 minutes or so.

In early January 2013, Delgado and Treppens interviewed plaintiff about using his access privilege at the Bo Jackson facility during PowerDown, implying that the gym floor had been damaged. Plaintiff acknowledged employing his access badge to allow unauthorized guests to use the gym but denied damaging the floor. Two days later, Treppens offered plaintiff the opportunity to resign in lieu of termination for abusing his access privilege. Plaintiff initially decided to resign. Later that same day, however, plaintiff rescinded his resignation, claiming that his termination was in retaliation for having raised prior safety and other concerns.

Plaintiff’s claim of retaliation prompted Nike to "hit the pause button" on terminating his employment. Randi Miller, an employee relations manager, testified that she delayed issuing plaintiff’s termination letter to gather more information about the retaliation allegation, including by interviewing plaintiff. Miller also testified that one of the first steps of the investigation was to exclude Treppens and Delgado—the accused retaliators—from the process. But despite that purported exclusion, at least Treppens continued to communicate with Miller about the matter. St. Jacques—to whom Nike delegated firing authority—did not interview plaintiff; she largely relied on the information provided to her by Miller. In late January 2013, St. Jacques terminated plaintiff, citing abuse of his access privilege as the reason for the decision.

Subsequently, plaintiff initiated this action, asserting, inter alia , that Nike retaliated against him for making safety complaints, ORS 654.062(5), and for whistleblowing, ORS 659A.199. Plaintiff contended that, for roughly two years, Nike subjected him to a hostile work environment in which he...

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