In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we report on a case from the Eleventh Circuit discussing an employee’s Title VII retaliation claim and a case from the Alabama Supreme Court discussing standing to pursue a lawsuit under the Alabama Open Meetings Act.

Davis v. City of Lake City, Florida, 2014 WL 241754 (11th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014) (examining a Title VII retaliation claim based on the termination of an employee).

Rudolph Davis (“Davis”) began working for the City of Lake City, Florida (the “City”) as a police officer in 1990. Davis rose through the ranks and ultimately earned the position of captain, second-in-command. Between August 2007 and the date of his termination, Davis filed several grievances both internally and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For a number of years the City Police Department had been in turmoil and eventually lost its accreditation. On September 28, 2009, the City hired Argatha Gilmore (“Gilmore”) as its new chief of police. Gilmore’s primary objective was to restore order to the Department and regain its accreditation. To that end, Gilmore worked longed hours and required Davis to meet with her twice daily. Davis resented these meetings and the changes implemented by Gilmore. On November 16, 2009, the City terminated Davis. The City claimed that Davis’s termination was due to fundamental differences between Gilmore’s vision for the future of the department and Davis’s understanding of his role as second-in-command. Davis sued the City claiming that his termination was evidence of retaliation in violation of Title VII.

Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee who has “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII], or because he has made a charge ... or participated in any manner in any investigation, proceeding or hearing under [Title VII].” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–3(a). To make out a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show: (1) that he engaged in an activity protected under Title VII; (2) that he suffered a materially adverse action; and (3) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Kidd v. Mando Am. Corp., 731 F.3d 1196, 1211 (11th Cir.2013). Once a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the challenged employment action. Pennington v. City of Huntsville, 261 F.3d 1262, 1266 (11th Cir .2001). The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to establish that the employer's proffered reason for the termination was pretext for retaliation. Id.

The only contested issue in this case was whether the City’s reason for terminating Davis was pretext for retaliation. The City argued that Davis was terminated because he did not fit into Gilmore’s command structure and future vision for the Department. To show pretext, Davis must demonstrate that the City’s reasons were not the true reasons for his termination. Davis must do more than simply disagree with the City’s decision to terminate his employment. He must address the City’s reasons and rebut them. The Court examined Davis’s claims that the City’s reason for terminating his employment was pretextual. Ultimately, the Court concluded that Davis’s retaliation claim failed because he could not provide sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the City’s reasons for his termination were pretextual.

Ex Parte Alabama Educational Television Commission et al. No. 1111494 (Ala. 2013) (discussing the standing requirement for lawsuits brought under the Alabama Open Meetings Act).

The Alabama Educational Television Commission (the “Commission”) exists to make the benefits of educational television available to the inhabitants of Alabama. The Commission is composed of seven members, one from each congressional district in Alabama. From 2002 until June 2012, Allan Pizzato served as the executive director of Alabama Public Television (“APT”). Pauline Howland served as the deputy director and chief financial officer of APT during that time. During a Commission meeting on June 12, 2012, the Commission voted to go into executive session to discuss Pizzato’s “general reputation, character, and job performance.” After the Commission returned to its regular meeting following the executive session, the Commission voted to terminate Pizzato’s and Howland’s employment with APT.

Pizzato and Howland sued the Commission and the Commissioners for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Pizzato and Howland argued that they were injured by the Commission’s termination of their employment and that their terminations were the result of the Commissioners’ violation of the Open Meetings Act. The Open Meetings Act has a penalty provision which allows the trial court to impose a fine for each meeting held in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Pizzato and Howard sought the imposition of the civil fines set forth in the Open Meetings Act. The Commission and the Commissioners filed a motion to dismiss arguing, amongst other things, that Pizzato and Howland lacked standing to pursue a lawsuit under the Open Meetings Act. Following the trial court’s denial of the Commission and the Commissioners Motions to Dismiss, the Commission and the Commissioners sought review from the Alabama Supreme Court. 

Violations of the Open Meetings Act may be enforced by any Alabama citizen. The Commission and the Commissioners argued that, in addition to the citizen requirement, Pizzato and Howland must also satisfy the general standing requirements under Alabama law. In general, an individual has standing to pursue a lawsuit upon demonstrating the following: (1) an actual, concrete and particularized “injury in fact”; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. The only specific relief Pizzato and Howland requested was the fines provided for in the Open Meetings Act.

The Alabama Supreme Court determined that Pizzato and Howland lacked standing to bring their lawsuit because they could not demonstrate a likelihood that their alleged injury would be redressed by a favorable decision. In making this determination, the court noted that the alleged injury resulted from an alleged one-time violation of the Open Meetings Act. Thus, the Court concluded that the relief sought by Pizzato and Howland was insufficient to satisfy the redressability requirement. The case was dismissed.