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Cole v. Management & Training Corporation

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Owensboro Division

June 11, 2014

JAMES COLE, Plaintiff,


JOSEPH H. McKINLEY, Jr., District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff James Cole's Motion to Alter and/or Amend Court's Order Granting Summary Judgment [DN 39]. At the request of the Court, the parties submitted supplemental briefs addressing the applicability of a "cat's paw" theory to Plaintiff's retaliation claim in light of two recent Supreme Court cases, Staub v. Proctor Hosp. , 131 S.Ct. 1186, 1193, 179 L.Ed.2d 144 (2011) and Vance v. Ball State University , 133 S.Ct. 2434, 186 L.Ed.2d 565 (2013). Fully briefed, this matter is ripe for decision.


On October 31, 2013, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant Management & Training Corporation on all of Plaintiff's claims, including a hostile work environment claim based on race and sex, a retaliation claim, and a claim based on unlawful termination. [Mem. Op. and Order, DN 37]. The Plaintiff subsequently asked the Court to reconsider summary judgment as to the hostile work environment claim and retaliation claim in his motion to alter or amend. The Court denied Plaintiff's motion as to the hostile work environment claim but ordered the parties to brief the issue of "cat's paw" liability for the retaliation claim. [Order, DN 46].


Motions to alter or amend judgments may be "made for one of three reasons: (1) An intervening change of controlling law; (2) Evidence not previously available has become available; or (3) It is necessary to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." United States v. Jarnigan , 2008 WL 5248172, at *2 (E.D. Tenn. Dec. 17, 2008) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e); Helton v. ACS Grp. , 964 F.Supp. 1175, 1182 (E.D. Tenn. 1997)); see also GenCorp, Inc. v. Am. Int'l Underwriters , 178 F.3d 804, 834 (6th Cir. 1999). Rule 59(e) is not intended to be used to "relitigate issues previously considered' or to submit evidence which in the exercise of reasonable diligence, could have been submitted before'" United States v. Abernathy , 2009 WL 55011, at * 1 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 7, 2009) (citation omitted); see also Browning v. Pennerton , 2008 WL 4791491, at * 1 (E.D. Ky. Oct. 24, 2008) ("[A] motion for reconsideration is not a vehicle to re-hash old arguments...."); Elec. Ins. Co. v. Freudenberg-Nok, Gen. P'ship , 487 F.Supp.2d 894, 902 (W.D. Ky. 2007) ("Such motions are not an opportunity for the losing party to offer additional arguments in support of its position."). Motions to alter or amend judgments under Rule 59(e) "are extraordinary and sparingly granted." Marshall v. Johnson , 2007 WL 1175046, at *2 (W.D. Ky. Apr. 19, 2007).


This case poses some interesting questions dealing with the interplay between the definition of a supervisor, as discussed in Vance, and "cat's paw" liability, as examined in Staub. First, the parties initially disagree as to whether "cat's paw" liability extends to biased nonsupervisory co-workers or whether it is limited to biased supervisors. Second, if Staub requires that the biased employees be supervisors, then the Court must determine, in this case, whether the members of the investigation team can be deemed supervisors by virtue of being delegated certain duties and tasks. Third, assuming the first two questions are answered in the affirmative, the Court must finally examine whether the alleged retaliatory animus sufficiently tainted the investigation team's findings so as to raise a factual issue of liability under a "cat's paw" theory.

A. Supervisors in a "Cat's Paw" Theory

The first question is whether "cat's paw" liability as discussed in Staub is limited to situations in which the biased employee is a supervisor as does it extend to biased nonsupervisory co-workers. Examining a "cat's paw" theory in a suit under the United Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA), the Supreme Court concluded that "if a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable." Staub , 131 S.Ct. at 1194. The narrow holding of Staub only addressed "cat's paw" liability in the context of biased supervisors, not coworkers.

The Plaintiff insists that the Sixth Circuit extended "cat's paw" liability to biased nonsupervisory co-workers long before Staub was decided. However, recently in Shazor v. Professional Transit Management, Ltd. , 744 F.3d 948 (6th Cir. 2014), the court noted that it has yet to "rule[] on whether Staub can be applied, in particular cases, to the actions of employees who do not meet the definition of supervisor' enunciated in Vance." Shazor , 744 F.3d at 956. This open question gives rise to another. Does Vance control the definition of "supervisor" for the purposes of a "cat's paw" theory? The answer to the second question makes it unnecessary to answer the first.

"[A]n employee is a supervisor' for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim..." Vance , 133 S.Ct. at 2439. The ability to make a "tangible employment action" means that the individual can "effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.'" Id. at 2443 (quoting Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth , 524 U.S. 742, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998)). Based on this definition, the question of whether an individual qualifies as a supervisor for purposes of Title VII can often be easily determined by the facts of the case or by agreement of the parties. In fact, the Supreme Court in Vance explained that the purpose of utilizing a less nebulous definition of supervisor is "to ensure that juries return verdicts that reflect the application of the correct legal rules to the facts." Id. at 2451. The Supreme Court expounded upon the logic in the following section:

Under the definition of "supervisor" that we adopt today, the question of supervisor status, when contested, can very often be resolved as a matter of law before trial. The elimination of this issue from the trial will focus the efforts of the parties, who will be able to present their cases in a way that conforms to the framework that the jury will apply. The plaintiff will know whether he or she must prove that the employer was negligent or whether the employer will have the burden of proving the elements of the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense. Perhaps even more important, the work of the jury, which is inevitably complicated in employment discrimination cases, will be simplified. The jurors can be given preliminary instructions that allow them to understand, as the evidence comes in, how each item of proof fits into the framework that they will ultimately be required to apply. And even where the issue ...

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