The Fifth Circuit has issued another opinion in the continuing saga of Jackson State University and its past athletic director, Dr. Vivian Fuller—this one about retaliation against a witness. To refresh everyone’s memory: A secretary at JSU filed an EEOC charge claiming that AD Fuller sexually harassed her and then fired her. During its investigation, JSU’s attorneys and the EEOC interviewed Fred Robinson, the Director of Sports Medicine, who witnessed some of the AD’s actions. A month after those interviews, AD Fuller terminated Robinson. He felt it was retaliation for his testimony; JSU said it was due to a reorganization of the athletic department and issues with Robinson’s daily availability.

The District Court Case and Verdict

Robinson sued JSU alleging retaliation under Title VII and the First Amendment. The case went to trial and the two big questions were: 1) Did Dr. Fuller actually know that the EEOC interviewed Robinson, and 2) were the reasons for Robinson’s termination simply pretext for retaliation? At trial, Dr. Fuller denied any knowledge of Robinson’s interviews. Without direct evidence, Robinson offered circumstantial evidence including: 1) He was fired not long after his EEOC interview; 2) JSU’s own attorneys knew about the interview and met with Fuller after the interview; 3) Dr. Fuller started avoiding him after the interview; and 4) JSU’s president had threatened to fire anyone who was against the AD (pretty strong one, there). JSU countered by claiming that Dr. Fuller had already decided to fire Robinson before the interview even occurred and also came up with some other incidents.

The jury sided with Robinson and awarded him just over $30,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. JSU moved to set aside the verdict claiming that there was insufficient evidence to show that the decision-maker, Dr. Fuller, had actual knowledge of Robinson’s EEOC interview, so she could not have retaliated against him for it. The court agreed with JSU and overturned the verdict. Robinson appealed.

What the Fifth Circuit Said

The Fifth Circuit narrowed the issue to whether there was legally sufficient evidence that Robinson’s EEOC interview (the protected activity) caused his termination (the adverse employment action). If Dr. Fuller had no knowledge of the protected activity, the termination could not be retaliation. The court noted that direct proof that a decision-maker had knowledge could be “elusive” — almost all of the people being accused of retaliating are going to feign ignorance of anything that could have given them a motive. For example, “I had no idea that Suzie had reported our slippery floors to OSHA! I terminated her only because we no longer needed an accountant.”

In the Fifth Circuit (Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), for a successful retaliation claim you have to show that the actual decision-maker had knowledge — not just that the corporation had constructive knowledge (as it is in other federal circuits). In this case, JSU argued that all of Robinson’s evidence was merely speculative. However, as the Fifth Circuit noted, it obviously was enough for the jury. The indirect and circumstantial evidence, such as the president’s threat to fire anyone who opposed the AD and the JSU’s attorneys meeting with the AD after the EEOC’s interview with Robinson, were, according to the Court, the “prototypical circumstantial indicators of decision-maker knowledge.” In regular speak, it was enough to convince the jury, and ultimately the Fifth Circuit, that Dr. Fuller knew about Robinson’s interview, despite her denials. The Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s striking of the verdict.

What Does this Teach Us?

Just because you have a decision-maker who says he didn’t know about a complaint (or EEOC charge, OSHA report, ADA request, or whatever) before he terminated the complaining employee or one of her witnesses that may not get you off the retaliation hook. Before you pull the trigger, you need to look at all the circumstances surrounding the potential adverse employment decision. Is it close in time to the protected activity (e.g., complaint, testimony)? Who knows about the protected activity, and what access have they had to your decision-maker? Has your CEO or anyone else made any threats or other comments about the claim that could hurt down the road?

As we always say, retaliation can be tricky. You have to not only defend the complaint but also prevent the retaliation fallout. While filing a complaint doesn’t make an employee bulletproof, it should at least make the employer take a good look at any future decisions that may affect that person or his or her supporters.