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 aprima 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.