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Maryland Court of Special Appeals Upholds a $650,000 Jury Verdict in a Retaliation Case

May 31, 2013

In Edgewood Management Corp. v. Jackson, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld a $650,000 jury verdict in a retaliation case brought under the Maryland Civil Rights Act.

Facts of the Case:  Plaintiff was a community manager for a property management company with over 30 years of seniority.  She had one subordinate, a leasing specialist who had also been employed for many years.  In December 2009, a new male regional vice-president visited the plaintiff’s property to advise her and her staff of recent personnel decisions.  He met privately with a male groundskeeper discretely to advise him that his position was being eliminated.  The vice president then informed the female leasing specialist, in front of coworkers and tenants, that her pay would be cut significantly.

The leasing specialist complained to the plaintiff that she believed she had been discriminated against because of her gender because the vice-president privately informed the male employee that his job was eliminated but publicly announced a significant reduction in her pay in front of numerous employees and tenants.  The leasing specialist also gave the plaintiff a written grievance, which the plaintiff forwarded to the vice-president’s supervisor.  When the plaintiff asked whether she should forward the grievance to Human Resources, the supervisor told her to place the grievance in the vice-president’s file and try to “get along.” 

Although the plaintiff had never before been subject to any discipline, a month later, the vice-president disciplined her for three instances of “misconduct.”  He also sent an email to other management which read, “Please know that we are on the path to terminating [plaintiff’s] employment but don’t have enough hard evidence as of today to make it happen.  There is one write up in the file and another is being worked on.  However, over the next few weeks, I believe that we will have what we need.”  The vice-president also wrote that he was contemplating transferring her to a distant property with a reduction in pay, which he thought would cause her to quit.  Several weeks later, he told the plaintiff that she would be transferred to a property more than 30 miles away and she did, in fact, quit.  She filed a lawsuit under the Maryland Civil Rights Act, claiming retaliation.

A jury found in plaintiff’s favor, awarding her $500,000 in economic damages and $150,000 in compensatory damages.  The employer appealed, arguing among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to prove retaliation. 

The Ruling: The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict.  The court found that there was sufficient evidence to prove that the employee engaged in protected “oppositional” activity by making a report of sex discrimination on behalf of her subordinate.  Relying on federal case law, the court noted that an employee’s complaint about an employer’s allegedly discriminatory conduct, whether through formal or informal grievance procedures, constitutes protected oppositional activity.  The plaintiff must show that he or she held a good faith, subjective, and objectively reasonable belief that the employer engaged in discriminatory conduct.  The evidence at trial showed that plaintiff both witnessed the vice-president treat her subordinate and the male groundskeeper differently and made a complaint on behalf of her subordinate.   Reasonable jurors could find by a preponderance of the evidence that plaintiff engaged in protected oppositional activity by opposing an act of discrimination on the basis of sex.

In addition, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the plaintiff did not suffer an adverse employment action because she quit.  An employee need only to show that she was subjected to an employment action that a “reasonable employee would have found . . . materially adverse,” i.e., an action that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  The court concluded that the jury could reasonably have concluded that management tried to engineer the termination of plaintiff’s employment and expected her to resign upon being told that she was being transferred to a position requiring a 70-mile-per-day commute with a reduction in pay.  This constituted an adverse employment action, despite the fact she resigned voluntarily.  

Lessons Learned: This case is a good reminder that retaliation claims can be brought by employees who have not made a complaint of discrimination.  Employees who are involved in opposing discrimination are also protected.  Moreover, adverse employment actions are not limited to “ultimate” employment actions like termination.