09 July 2020

Court Upholds Large Award for Teacher in Retaliation Case

The Court of Appeals recently released its decision in Davis v Jackson Pub Sch, an unpublished case pertaining to the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA).  Davis was a veteran teacher who “had received exemplary evaluations for her performance, and she had received an evaluation rating of ‘highly effective’ for the [2014‑2015] school year.”  But, in 2015, Davis was assaulted by a student, M.H.  She obtained a personal protection order (PPO) against M.H.; however, she alleged that M.H. remained near her classroom and pounded on her door during class.  After Davis attempted to amend the PPO, she was transferred to another school focused on International Baccalaureate curriculum – a curriculum in which Davis had not been trained.  Despite having a “highly effective” rating and “exemplary” evaluations previously, Davis received an “ineffective” rating after her transfer.  She filed a legal action, claiming the District had retaliated against her for reporting the assault to the police, in violation of the WPA.

After trial, a jury awarded Davis a total award of nearly $400,000.00, reflecting economic damages as well as noneconomic damages (e.g., humiliation, embarrassment, etc.).  The District appealed the decision, alleging, among other arguments, that Davis could not show a “causal” link between her protected activity (i.e., contacting the police) and the adverse employment action.  The court disagreed, finding that Plaintiff provided evidence she had been treated in a “highly unprofessional manner” following her contact with the police.  And, the court reasoned, while the District argued that it transferred Davis to comply with the PPO, Davis had sufficiently demonstrated that the District’s reason was pretext for retaliation.

The District also argued that the court failed to instruct the jury on the appropriate standard, reasoning that the United States Supreme Court has required a “but‑for” causation standard in employment cases rather than a lower standard requiring only that the adverse employment action was “related to” the protected activity.  But, the court noted, controlling precedent in Michigan did not comport with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling and, until the Michigan Supreme Court overturned its controlling precedent, Michigan’s lower courts were compelled to follow controlling law.  Thus, the court affirmed the jury’s award and rejected the District’s appeal.

The case may be accessed here.