Woods v. City of Berwyn

Decision Date15 October 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–3766.,13–3766.
Citation803 F.3d 865,32 A.D. Cases 193
PartiesJohn Michael WOODS, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. CITY OF BERWYN,Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Peter M. Katsaros, Attorney, Golan & Christie, LLP, Harry Charles Lee, Law Office of Harry C. Lee, Chicago, IL 60602 for PlaintiffAppellant.

Jeffrey Scot Fowler, Attorney, Laner Muchin, LTD., Chicago, IL, Cynthia S. Grandfield, Attorney, Del Galdo Law Group, LLC, Berwyn, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before KANNE, WILLIAMS, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

Opinion

WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge.

When John Woods told a coworker at the Berwyn Fire Department that he wanted to kill somebody, all of them” and that his children were going to “go over there” and “tune them up,” referring to his coworkers and superiors, Fire Department Chief Denis O'Halloran looked into the statements and eventually recommended termination. A three-member panel for the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners conducted a hearing on O'Halloran's recommendation. Woods was represented by counsel, who gave opening and closing statements, put on witnesses, cross-examined others, made and won objections, and presented exhibits. After the hearing, the Board voted to terminate Woods based largely on the testimony of the co-worker to whom Woods made the statement. Woods filed a complaint in federal court asserting discrimination and unlawful retaliation and attempted to proceed under a cat's paw theory of liability, which applies in employment discrimination cases when a biased subordinate who lacks decision-making power uses the formal decision-maker as a dupe in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action. Under Woods's theory, O'Halloran was the discriminatory subordinate who used the formal decision-maker (the Board) to fire him. However, based on the full and independent evidentiary hearing and the Board's almost complete reliance on the co-worker's testimony, any discriminatory animus by O'Halloran cannot be the basis for the cat's paw liability. Without that, Woods cannot make out a prima facie case, and we affirm the grant of summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Because we are reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we present the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Woods, the non-moving party. Nichols v. Mich. City Plant Planning Dept., 755 F.3d 594, 599 (7th Cir.2014). Although our decision does not ultimately turn on the events that Woods alleges were discriminatory, we present them to give context to Woods's case.

In January 2010, Berwyn Fire Department Lieutenant John Woods sustained a back injury from carrying a 350–pound heart attack victim. Woods was cleared to return to work in April, but did not return until June because of persistent pain. Before Woods's return, Chief O'Halloran and Assistant Chief Frank Simek sent him two memoranda with instructions to complete the enclosed Family Medical Leave Act paperwork. Simek also visited Woods's home and reiterated that the FMLA paperwork needed to be signed because it revolved “around [his] status as a fireman.” Fearing for his job's safety, Woods signed the FMLA paperwork.

Upon Woods's return, O'Halloran informed Woods that he had three options: he could go on normal retirement, on duty-related disability, or on a nonduty-related disability. Woods said he was not interested in any of the options and, instead, successfully bid on a position as the Fire Department's Training Officer. Woods later learned from his friend, Joe Lotito, that Chief O'Halloran had asked Lotito to put his own name on the bid list so that O'Halloran would not have to choose Woods. Woods nonetheless began work, but reported that the training he received was inadequate. Specifically, he asserted that he did not get assistance in planning, that prior lesson plans had been removed just before he started, and that he was constantly criticized for his work.

One year later, in May 2011, Woods was participating in an arduous fire burn training exercise on a hot day and told O'Halloran he was “stoking the fire” to which O'Halloran responded “Yeah, it's a young man's job, Mike.” Later that same month, Woods met with Assistant Chief Dick Swade and Deputy Chief Greg DiMenna who told Woods that they wanted him to retire or that he would be fired. In a separate conversation, Woods relayed to Deputy Chief Sam Molinaro that Woods wanted to remain at his job, but wanted the harassment to stop.

In a meeting later that month with Chief O'Halloran, Woods said he wanted to leave the Training Officer's position because he was being harassed and not given a fair opportunity to succeed. O'Halloran posted a bid sheet to find a replacement. If no one signed up, the position would automatically go to the lieutenant with the lowest seniority, Ronald Hamilton, a friend of Woods's, who did not want the job.

Woods and Hamilton had a conversation one week later on June 3. Although Woods claims the conversation focused on Hamilton's displeasure with the possibility of being assigned as a Training Officer, Hamilton's contemporaneous notes say:

Sometime during our conversation [Woods] stated to me that at one time he wanted to kill somebody, all of them. He stated that his kids asked him for the addresses, and that they would go “over there” and “tune them up.” Mike also stated that with all the stress he is under that he was thinking of going back to the psychiatrist. He also said something on the lines of hurting himself.

Woods denies threatening harm to himself or anybody else. According to Woods, Hamilton began screaming at Woods, saying that Woods messed up his own life and now was messing up Hamilton's life.

Hamilton's version of the conversation was relayed to, among others, O'Halloran, who asked that the Berwyn police conduct a well-being check on Woods. Four officers went to visit Woods, who denied making any threats, and reported that Woods was calm, polite, and in good spirits. They concluded Woods was not a threat to himself or others and left.

O'Halloran ordered Woods to undergo a psychological evaluation conducted by O'Halloran's own selected psychologist, Dr. Anthony DeJoseph, to determine whether Woods was homicidal or suicidal. The psychologist reported there was no way of making a definitive determination whether Woods made the statements to Hamilton, but that Woods was honest and forthcoming and was not at risk of harming himself or others. O'Halloran disregarded Dr. DeJoseph's report and conducted his own investigation, including an interrogation of Woods where Woods again denied making any threats.

On July 21, 2011, O'Halloran issued a Statement of Charges against Woods and requested that the Berwyn Board of Fire and Police Commissioners terminate Woods's employment. The Statement of Charges relayed the conversation between Woods and Hamilton in the factual section, and included charges for conduct unbecoming an officer, fighting/verbal abuse, violation of Illinois's disorderly conduct law (720 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/26–1(a)(1) ), and false statements made during O'Halloran's investigation.

At the hearing on the Statement of Charges, the Board heard testimony, opening and closing statements, viewed exhibits and ruled on objections. Woods was represented by counsel. One week later, the Board issued a one-page ruling—without reference to any facts or law—that Berwyn had met its burden of establishing by a preponderance of evidence that Woods was guilty of the charges against him and there was cause for discharge. After twenty-three years with the Department and at fifty-three years old, Woods was terminated. He challenged the administrative ruling in state court and, upon a remand for a more detailed opinion, the Board issued an eight-page opinion. That opinion has since been upheld as not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable by two courts. See Woods v. City of Berwyn, 11–ch–32916 (Cook Cnty.Cir.Ct. Oct. 4, 2013); Woods v. City of Berwyn, 13–3450 (Ill.App.Ct. Oct. 29, 2014).

Meanwhile, Woods filed the complaint relevant to this appeal in which he alleged, among other things, the four counts on appeal: (1) retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act; (2) discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act; (3) discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; and (4) retaliation under Illinois's Workers' Compensation Act. The district court granted summary judgment on all counts in favor of the City of Berwyn. Woods appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

Woods argues he has presented sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether O'Halloran's discriminatory animus could be imputed to the Board, thereby supporting a cat's paw theory of liability. He also argues that he presented a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Department's and O'Halloran's decisions to fire him were pretextual.

As noted, we construe all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Woods, the non-movant. Nichols, 755 F.3d at 599. Summary judgment should be granted if there is a genuine issue of material fact. Id. However, we need not draw inferences that are supported by “only speculation and conjecture.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). A factual dispute is only “genuine” “if a reasonable jury could find for either party.” Id. (internal quotation omitted).

Woods admits that he cannot show that the direct decision-maker, the Board, acted with discriminatory animus. Instead, he relies on the “cat's paw” theory of liability. We were the first circuit to use the phrase “cat's paw” when discussing a subordinate using her superior to commit a discriminatory act in the employment discrimination context. See Shager v. Upjohn Co., 913 F.2d 398, 405 (7th Cir.1990). As the Supreme Court noted, the phrase comes from one of Aesop's Fables in which a monkey induces a cat, by flattery, to extract roasting chestnuts from the fire. Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 562 U.S. 411, 415 n....

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