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Ferguson v. Middle Tenn. State Univ.

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

October 29, 2014

JIM FERGUSON
v.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY

Session February 6, 2014

Page 376

Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Case Remanded to the Court of Appeals. Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals, Middle Section Chancery Court for Rutherford County. No. 036336MI. John D. Wootten, Jr., Judge.

Michelle M. Benjamin, Winchester, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jim Ferguson.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; William E. Young, Solicitor General; William J. Marett, Jr., and Leslie Ann Bridges, Senior Counsel, for the appellee, Middle Tennessee State University.

SHARON G. LEE, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which CORNELIA A. CLARK, GARY R. WADE, and WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., JJ., joined. JANICE M. HOLDER, J., not participating.

OPINION

SHARON G. LEE, C.J.

Page 377

A jury found that an employer retaliated against an employee in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ) and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (" THRA" ) and awarded the employee compensatory damages. The Court of Appeals reversed the award, holding that the employee had failed to prove that his supervisor had knowledge of his protected activity when she took adverse action against him. We hold that the jury's verdict is supported by material evidence from which the jury could infer that the supervisor knew that the employee had filed a lawsuit for discrimination when she engaged in retaliatory conduct. We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, reinstate the jury verdict, and remand to the Court of Appeals for a review of the award of damages.

OPINION

I.

A jury awarded compensatory damages to Jim Ferguson after finding that his employer, Middle Tennessee State University (" MTSU" ), through the actions of its supervisor, retaliated against Mr. Ferguson for filing a discrimination suit against MTSU. The jury verdict was based on violations of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3 (2006), and the THRA, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-301 (1978), which prohibit employers or their agents from retaliating against employees who engage in protected activity, such as the filing of an employment discrimination lawsuit. To prove his retaliation claim, Mr. Ferguson was required to show that he engaged in protected activity, that MTSU knew about his protected activity, that MTSU took a materially adverse action against him, and that there was a causal connection between his protected activity and the resulting adverse action. This appeal concerns the knowledge requirement -- whether the verdict is supported by material evidence that MTSU, through its supervisor, knew that Mr. Ferguson had filed a lawsuit before the supervisor increased his work duties and required him to perform work that he was not physically capable of performing.

Mr. Ferguson, a Japanese-American, began working for MTSU in May of 1987. Beginning in 1997, he worked in the Housing Department under the supervision of Ms. Dana Byrd. Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Byrd initially had a good relationship, but it deteriorated over time. Mr. Ferguson believed this was because Ms. Byrd discovered that Mr. Ferguson's mother was Japanese and that he was Japanese-American.

On December 29, 1998, Mr. Ferguson had shoulder surgery. When he returned to work in February of 1999, Mr. Ferguson's doctor placed restrictions on the work he could perform. Ms. Byrd, however, directed him to do work that exceeded his medical restrictions. She told Mr. Ferguson to perform the work or go home. Mr. Ferguson continued to work because he had a son with medical problems and needed the job for health insurance.

In March of 1999, Mr. Ferguson complained to Karen Milstead, a benefits specialist with MTSU's Human Resources Department, about being required to perform tasks that exceeded his medical restrictions. After Mr. Ferguson provided Ms. Milstead with a copy of his medical restrictions, his work requirements decreased for a period of time. On a ...


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