A jury recently returned a $310,500 verdict in favor of a former University of South Florida employee on her retaliation claim against the University. DeBose v. USF Board of Trustees, et al, No. 8:15-cv-02787 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 26, 2018).   The former employee, Angela DeBose, claimed she was retaliated against because she had filed internal race bias complaints with the University and a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge of discrimination.

DeBose was hired by the University in 1988, and by 1996, had become the registrar for the university system. She claimed she had received exemplary performance reviews from 1988 to 2013. Beginning in 2013, and continuing through 2015, DeBose claimed she was subjected to racial harassment and a deliberate campaign to undermine and fire her. This campaign included being overlooked for promotions, bullying, and degrading epithets.

DeBose filed an internal ethics complaint against another administrator, charges of discrimination internally with the University, and eventually a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in December 2014.  She unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction preventing retaliation or termination during her EEOC proceedings. DeBose was given a notice of separation/termination and told to immediately leave campus on May 19. She was eventually terminated effective August 19, 2015. Following the initial notice, DeBose applied for and received a job offer from another university. That offer, however, was rescinded after the prospective employer called the University for a reference.

DeBose filed her lawsuit, pro se, in December 2015. At trial, the jury found the University had retaliated against DeBose, they did not find that she was discriminated upon because of her race. The jury found a preponderance of the evidence showing that her race was a factor in the decision to end her employment, but it also found that she would have been discharged regardless of her race.  The jury had considered DeBose’s internal complaints, the EEOC charge, the prior court action, and the bad job reference. In addition to $310,500 in damages for lost wages and benefits found by the jury, DeBose, who is an attorney licensed outside of Florida, has also moved for $712,500 in attorneys’ fees, $102,520 in litigation expenses, as well as front pay. The University has indicated it will appeal.

This case is yet another example of how a retaliation claim can prevail even in the absence of a finding of discrimination. Employers should respond to all complaints involving possible discrimination with thorough and objective investigations. Further, any employment actions taken against an employee after they have filed a complaint — either internally or externally — should be related solely to their job and meticulously documented.