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The city of Houston retaliated against a police officer by suspending him after his father sued the city for race discrimination and retaliation, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
In 2007, members of the Houston Police Department, including Manuel Zamora, filed a race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city. In September 2008, Officer Christopher Zamora claimed that he had been retaliated against by being removed from the department’s prestigious Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) in March 2008 because of his father’s lawsuit. To prove his retaliation claim, Zamora took depositions of his supervisors in the CRU. His supervisors testified that he was removed from the CRU for reasons other than his father’s lawsuit. After the depositions were concluded, the father filed an internal affairs complaint against the supervisors, alleging that they lied under oath when deposed by his son.
The internal affairs division questioned Zamora regarding his allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Based on statements by Zamora’s supervisors attacking his credibility and contradicting his factual assertions, internal affairs determined that Zamora—rather than his supervisors—lied during its investigation. Based on this decision, a disciplinary committee for the department recommended that Zamora be suspended for 10 days, which was approved by the chief of police.
At the same time, the city filed a motion to have Zamora’s case dismissed before trial. This motion was granted by the district court, but subsequently reversed on appeal based upon a U.S. Supreme Court precedent allowing retaliation claims by close family members of a complaining employee. Zamora also appealed his suspension in accordance with the department’s policies to an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator agreed with Zamora and overturned his suspension.
After his lawsuit was reinstated on appeal, Zamora amended the lawsuit to add a claim that his 10-day suspension was retaliatory. The case went to trial, and then was tried again based on a Supreme Court decision that further clarified the applicable standard for proving retaliation. The jury in the second lawsuit found notes from the jury in the first lawsuit, and the city asked for a mistrial. This was denied and the jury ultimately ruled in Zamora’s favor, awarding him $23,000 in past compensatory damages and $127,000 in future compensatory damages for his retaliation claims. The city asked the court to reduce or set aside the jury verdict, which was denied as to the $23,000 past damages award, but granted as to the $127,000 future damages award. This award of future damages was vacated as not supported by the evidence.
Both parties appealed the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 5th Circuit found that the conduct of Zamora’s CRU supervisors at the deposition supported the jury’s finding of retaliation. It considered their testimony and later claims of untruthfulness against Zamoraevidence of retaliatory motivation, which caused the internal affairs division and the chief of police to suspend Zamora. In this way, Zamora proved a “cat’s paw” theory of retaliation in which the supervisors manipulated the decision-makers into serving their purposes of retribution against Zamora. The 5th Circuit upheld the verdict of $23,000 in past compensatory damages as supported by the mental anguish and damage to reputation suffered by Zamora due to the suspension issued against him. It also reversed the district court’s ruling vacating the future damages award but held that the amount of future damages should be limited to future reputational harm suffered by Zamora as a result of the suspension issued against him.
Zamora v. City of Houston, 5th Cir., No. 14-20125 (Aug. 19, 2015).Professional Pointer: Because recent Supreme Court rulings have expanded the grounds upon which an employee can claim retaliation, an employer should carefully evaluate its response to an employee’s complaint of discrimination.
Jeffrey L. Rhodes is managing partner of the civil division of Albo & Oblon, a business and employment law firm in Arlington, Va.
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