Retaliation claims are based on protected activity. First, you must have complained about some kind of discrimination, sought a reasonable accommodation for a disability, or sought a medical leave. However, to have a viable retaliation claim, you do not need to be able to prevail in your case for discrimination. A recent jury decision in federal court in Texas found in favor of a former employee claiming retaliation though her sexual harassment claim had been dismissed in 2014.
Monica Hague is the plaintiff who filed a lawsuit against her former employer, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC), in 2011. According to the appellate court’s decision, she is a registered nurse who worked for the UTHSC as a civilian training officer in the Emergency Health Services Department from 2008 to 2011. She was originally hired on a “term basis,” and her contract was renewed twice, each renewal for a one-year period.
Complaints of Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
During her employment, Hague filed internal complaints of discrimination concerning two doctors.
- In September 2010, she reported to the UTHSC’s interim Associate Dean, Dr. Wallace, that Dr. Manifold sexually harassed her by reading an explicit magazine article out loud during a department meeting; she also claimed that he gave a co-worker a sexually explicit doll. In October 2010, Hague followed up with an official complaint to Dr. Blankmeyer, the employee responsible for civil rights compliance issues involving faculty members.
- After an investigation, Dr. Blankmeyer’s supervisor, Dr. Murphy, sent separate memoranda to Hague and Dr. Manifold in December 2010 explaining the outcome and admonishing Dr. Manifold for his behavior. The UTHSC found what happened did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment but Dr. Manifold’s actions did “meet parts of the definition of sexual misconduct” and were “unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace or classroom.” Hague testified that no further incidents of sexual harassment occurred after the investigation.
- Hague also filed a grievance with Wallace concerning Dr. Villers, the head of the Emergency Health Services Department. She alleged that Dr. Villers treated employees differently due to their sex and he fostered an “uninviting work environment.” The resulting investigation absolved him of discrimination but recommended that he improve his communications within the department.
Hague filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on June 17, 2011. Three days later, the UTHSC gave Hague a letter informing her that it would not renew her contract beyond August 2011. The UTHSC received notice of the EEOC complaint on June 21, 2011.
Hague obtained a right to sue letter from the agency and filed her lawsuit claiming the UTHSC violated her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by retaliating against her, discriminating against her because of her gender, and subjecting her to sexual harassment.
Lower and Appellate Court Decisions
The district court judge ruled against Hague on all claims, granting the UTHSC’s motion for summary judgment, stating that the evidence didn’t support her allegations. Hague appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed that the sex discrimination and sexual harassment claims were properly dismissed but the retaliation claim needed to go to trial. One of the findings held against Hague is that she failed to include her sex discrimination claim on her EEOC charge paperwork because she failed to check the box indicating that claim on her intake sheet. Therefore, Hague had not properly exhausted her administrative remedies for her sex discrimination claim, and she could not address them in court.
As for Hague’s sexual harassment claim, the appellate court found that Dr. Manifold was not Hague’s supervisor, because he could not take any tangible employment actions against her, such as disciplining her. Therefore, the case was, at best, a co-worker harassment claim. But, since Hague alleged only two incidents, only one of which directly addressed her, she could not establish that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. In other words, the alleged actions were not severe or pervasive enough to affect the terms or conditions of Hague’s employment.
However, the court ruled differently on Hague’s retaliation claim. The appellate court stated that Hague’s brief didn’t address the retaliation claim specifically and neither did the lower court, though it should have. The district court judge didn’t fully determine whether Hague satisfied the basic prima facie requirements of a retaliation claim: that is, that she engaged in protected activity (made internal discrimination complaints), that she suffered an adverse employment action (her contract was not renewed), and that there was a causal link between the two.
The appellate court drew the following conclusions:
- Two other female employees who supported Hague’s complaint also didn’t have their contracts renewed. The reasons given were subjective “trust” issues; the decision was not based on objective performance.
- The deciding official gave two different reasons for Hague’s non-renewal (budgetary concerns and a supposed need for a higher pay grade for the position). This changed story may not be credible to a jury, which may see the offered reasons as a pretext for retaliation.
- Hague’s supervisor stated he no longer trusted her because of her grievance about him. His lawyer claimed he referred to a separate grievance, not the one about sexual harassment. The appellate court stated that testimony could be interpreted in different ways, including one supporting Hague.
- Hague’s direct supervisor contradicted higher-level managers, who claimed she had performance problems. The direct supervisor said her performance was good.
The appellate court sent the case back down for a trial on the retaliation claim in 2004. The jury found for Hague in January, awarding her $100,000 for lost wages and benefits and $15,000 in compensatory damages.
Summing It Up
A retaliation claim can stand on its own, and a successful lawsuit need not include discrimination claims. To ultimately succeed, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show that he or she met the following criteria:
- He or she participated in a protected activity (like cooperating in a discrimination investigation or being a witness in litigation) or opposed discrimination. If discrimination was opposed (such as filing an internal discrimination complaint), it must be based on a reasonable, good faith belief that discrimination occurred. A mere belief is sufficient; the plaintiff does not need to show that the alleged discrimination actually happened.
- An adverse employment action was taken (such as a contract not being renewed, a firing, or a demotion).
- There’s sufficient evidence of a causal connection between the protected activity or opposition and the adverse impact (the defendant’s given reasons aren’t credible, there’s a short time between the two, or similarly situated employees were treated the same).
Another point this case drives home is the need to hire a careful lawyer to represent you in a retaliation claim: one who makes sure that all the correct boxes are checked off on EEOC forms and that all the important issues are covered in legal briefs.
If you live in Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia and believe your employer has retaliated against you, contact our office today so we can discuss what happened, how the law may apply to your case, and how we can best protect your legal rights.