United States: Not So Fast! D.C. Court Of Appeals Orders New Trial For Employee Who Alleged Retaliation For Intending To Testify In Another Employee’s Sexual Harassment Suit

Last Updated: November 12 2014
Article by Michael Stevens and Karen S. Vladeck

The D.C. Court of Appeals, the District of Columbia's highest court, recently vacated and remanded a trial court's decision granting judgment as a matter of law to the District after the trial court concluded that the Plaintiff had failed to present a prima facie case of retaliation. Bryant v. District of Columbia, 2014 WL 5473052 (D.C. Oct. 30, 2014). The Plaintiff, Tyrone Bryant, had sued the District alleging that he was terminated after he agreed to testify in a pending sexual harassment suit by another employee. By vacating and remanding the case, Mr. Bryant will have another bite at the apple on his claims of retaliation.

Background Facts

The District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) employed Mr. Bryant as a correctional officer at its Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Maryland. He worked at DYRS for 18 years until his termination on November 20, 2008. His supervisor regarded Mr. Bryant as dependable and an overall good employee.

In 2005, a correctional officer under Mr. Bryant's supervision at Oak Hill filed suit against the District alleging that other DYRS managers had harassed her. In preparation for the litigation, an investigative team for the District toured the Oak Hill facility in September 2008. Mr. Bryant led the tour and, during it, he informed the team members that he believed — and would so testify — that the employee had been sexually harassed. The following month, his supervisor told Mr. Bryant that counsel to DYRS would contact him soon to prepare him to testify at a deposition in the lawsuit. Mr. Bryant told his supervisor that he did not need to prepare because he "was going to tell the truth, that [she] was sexually harassed." The Oak Hill Superintendent was present for this conversation.

When contacted by counsel to prepare for the deposition, Mr. Bryant again expressed his intention to testify in support of the claim of harassment against the District. On November 20, 2008, the Superintendent summoned Mr. Bryant to a meeting with two human resources representatives. At that meeting, Mr. Bryant received a letter signed by the DYRS Director notifying him that he had been terminated. When Mr. Bryant asked if  his termination was related to his intent to testify against the District, the human resources representative said he "wasn't at liberty to talk about it."

Mr. Bryant filed an action against the District of Columbia for retaliation under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The District moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied, concluding that Mr. Bryant had presented a prima facie case of retaliation. Specifically, the court determined that a reasonable jury could infer that Mr. Bryant's superiors had knowledge that he was going to testify in the sexual harassment litigation, and therefore the jury could reasonably conclude that there was a "causal connection" between Mr. Bryant's intent to testify and his dismissal.

The case proceeded to a jury trial, where Mr. Bryant recounted the circumstances leading to his dismissal. At the close of Mr. Bryant's testimony, the District moved for judgment as a matter of law. This time, the trial court granted the District's motion, concluding that Mr. Bryant failed to provide sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could infer that Mr. Bryant's superiors had knowledge of his intent to testify.

Mr. Bryant moved for a new trial and to reopen the case to admit into evidence a deposition by DYRS Chief of Services David Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad testified at the deposition that he conferred with the Superintendent — who evidence showed knew of Mr. Bryant's intent to testify — about Mr. Bryant shortly before he was fired. According to Mr. Muhammad, the Superintendent said that he "did not believe [Mr. Bryant] should continue to work in his position." Mr. Muhammad testified that he then recommended that DYRS terminate Mr. Bryant. The trial court denied Mr. Bryant's motion to reopen, concluding that, even with the Muhammad deposition, Mr. Bryant did not provide sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could infer that the Director who fired Mr. Bryant knew that Mr. Bryant intended to testify against the District. Mr. Bryant appealed.

The Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's determination that Mr. Bryant failed to present a prima facie case of retaliation. The trial court relied on a prior Court of Appeals decision in concluding that Mr. Bryant needed to demonstrate that the decisionmakers who chose to fire Mr. Bryant had "actual knowledge" of his intent to testify. After all, if the relevant decisionmaker did not have actual knowledge of such protected activity, Mr. Bryant could not establish that he was fired because of that protected activity.

The Court of Appeals, however, reasoned that actual knowledge may be established by circumstantial evidence. The Court observed that Mr. Bryant alleged that he was fired because he intended to testify against the District in the sexual harassment case. During his case-in-chief, Mr. Bryant testified that the sexual harassment case was a topic of discussion among departmental personnel and that he escorted a legal team that was investigating the claim around the facility. He also testified that he told the District's lawyers and Mr. Thomas, in the presence of the Superintendent, about his intent to testify. This, the Court concluded, amounted to enough circumstantial evidence of actual knowledge that the matter should have been presented to the jury.

Conclusion

The Bryant case confirms that plaintiffs in the District of Columbia may establish retaliation claims with circumstantial evidence. This will make it more difficult for employers in the District to get retaliation claims dismissed on summary judgment prior to trial. For more information, please contact the authors of this post, or the Arent Fox professional that usually handles your matters.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions