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Ferguson v. Middle Tennessee State University

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

March 11, 2015

JIM FERGUSON
v.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY

Session January 27, 2015.

On Remand from the Supreme Court of Tennessee Oct. 29, 2014.

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Rutherford County No. 036336MI John D. Wootten, Jr., Judge.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; William E. Young, Solicitor General;

William J. Marett, Jr., Senior Counsel; Leslie Ann Bridges, Senior Counsel; and Casey N. Miley, Assistant Attorney General., Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Middle Tennessee State University.

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

Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Arnold b. Goldin, J., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

OPINION

KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE.

I. Background

In Ferguson v. Middle Tennessee State University, No. M2012-00890-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 1304490 (Tenn. Ct. App. March 28, 2013) (" Ferguson I"), this Court reversed the trial court's judgment on a jury verdict in favor of the Appellee Jim Ferguson, who is of Japanese-American ancestry. The jury found that Mr. Ferguson's employer, Middle Tennessee State University ("MTSU, " or "Appellant") retaliated against Mr. Ferguson in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §2000e-3 (2006), and the Tennessee Human Rights Act ("THRA"), Tennessee Code Annotated Section 4-21-301. Title VII and the THRA prohibit an employer or its agent from retaliating against an employee who engages in protected activity, such as filing an employment discrimination lawsuit.

The relevant facts here are not disputed. For purposes of continuity, we recite a brief case history based upon our opinion in Ferguson I and our Supreme Court's opinion in Ferguson v. Middle Tennessee State University, ___ S.W.3d ___, No. M2012-00890-SC-R11-CV, 2014 WL 5463941 (Tenn. Oct. 29, 2014) ("Ferguson Supreme Court"). Mr. Ferguson began working for MTSU in May 1987. Beginning in 1997, he worked in the Housing Department under the supervision of Ms. Dana Byrd. On December 29, 1998, Mr. Ferguson had shoulder surgery. When he returned to work in February 1999, Mr. Ferguson's doctor placed certain restrictions on the work he could perform. It is undisputed that Ms. Byrd knew that Mr. Ferguson was working under medical restrictions. Nonetheless, Ms. Byrd directed him to do work that exceeded these restrictions. Mr. Ferguson believed that the assignments Ms. Byrd mandated were more onerous than the work assigned to other maintenance employees. Accordingly, in March 1999, Mr. Ferguson complained to Karen Milstead, a benefits specialist with MTSU's Human Resources Department. For a time thereafter, Mr. Ferguson was assigned lighter duty; however, on or about August 9, 2002, Mr. Ferguson injured his shoulder and back at work. Mr. Ferguson received medical care and a new set of work restrictions. He took the restrictions to Ms. Byrd, who advised him that his duties would comply with the restrictions. Mr. Ferguson testified that he could hardly walk, but Ms. Byrd still had him perform overhead tasks. Ultimately, Mr. Ferguson's injuries required back surgery. Mr. Ferguson's recuperation kept him off work until March 2003.

In November or December 2002, during the time he was recuperating from back surgery, Mr. Ferguson filed an employment discrimination complaint against MTSU with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC complaint alleged discrimination on the basis of race and national origin and further alleged that Mr. Ferguson was subjected to a hostile work environment.

Mr. Ferguson returned to work on March 17, 2003. However, within days of returning to work, on March 27, 2003, Mr. Ferguson filed his first lawsuit against MTSU. In his complaint, Mr. Ferguson alleged discrimination on the basis of disability, race, and national origin under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, the THRA, and the Tennessee Handicap Act. After filing his lawsuit, Mr. Ferguson continued to report for work. On April 7, 2003, four days after MTSU was served with Mr. Ferguson's employment discrimination lawsuit, Ms. Byrd ordered Mr. Ferguson to perform tasks that required physical labor beyond his medical restrictions.

On April 22, 2003, Mr. Ferguson received further work restrictions from his doctor. These included limited overhead work with his right shoulder and only occasional lifting over twenty pounds. The next day, Ms. Byrd ordered Mr. Ferguson to convert the exterior lights on all campus buildings to flood lights. On April 24, 2003, Ms. Byrd ordered Mr. Ferguson to check all exit lights in every dormitory. ...


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