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Li Lin v. Ellis

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

January 14, 2020

LI LIN, Respondent,
v.
MATTHEW J. ELLIS, DEFENDANT, and THE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN SAINT LOUIS, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF SAINT LOUIS CITY. The Honorable Christopher Edward McGraugh, Judge.

         COUNSEL:

          The university was represented by James R. Layton of Tueth, Kenney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt PC in St. Louis, and Mark J. Bremer and D. Leo Human of Shands, Elbert, Gianolakis & Giljum LLP in St. Louis.

          Lin was represented by Jonathan C. Berns of Dobson, Goldberg, Berns & Rich LLP in St. Louis, and Matthew Ghio of Ghio Law Firm LLC in St. Louis.

          OPINION

Page 239

         PER CURIAM

          Dr. Li Lin filed suit against Washington University (" the University" ) and Dr. Matthew Ellis for retaliation pursuant to section 213.070[1] of the Missouri Human Rights Act (" MHRA" ), claiming her request for a reasonable accommodation of her herniated discs was a protected activity. A jury returned a verdict in Dr. Lin's favor against the University but relieved Dr. Ellis of any liability. The University appeals, raising five claims of error. This Court finds the University's first point alleging the circuit court erred in denying the University judgment notwithstanding the verdict (" JNOV" ) because Dr. Lin failed to submit a cognizable claim under the MHRA is dispositive. This Court holds merely requesting an accommodation is insufficient to support a claim of retaliation under the plain language of the MHRA because such a request, standing alone, does not constitute opposition to a practice prohibited by the MHRA, nor does it constitute the filing of a complaint, testifying, assisting, or participating in any investigation, proceeding or hearing conducted under the MHRA. The circuit

Page 240

court's judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.[2]

          Factual and Procedural History

          Dr. Lin was employed by the University's school of medicine as a staff scientist from 1996 until 2012. Dr. Lin held numerous positions working in various laboratories, each supervised by a different lead researcher. Each time Dr. Lin's position was eliminated due to funding restraints or supervisory departures, Dr. Lin timely secured a new position with a different University laboratory.

          In 2004, Dr. Lin began research work on a breast cancer project supervised by Dr. Ellis. Dr. Lin worked in Dr. Ellis' laboratory until her termination in 2012. Dr. Lin performed cell or tissue culture work, which required her to work under a hood to ensure the cultures remained in a sterile environment. During this time, Dr. Lin began experiencing chronic back pain and was diagnosed with two herniated discs. Dr. Lin informed Dr. Ellis of her diagnosis and requested accommodation to avoid tasks that aggravated her condition. Dr. Ellis provided the requested accommodation.

          In 2010, Dr. Lin trained to perform microarray work pursuant to grant funding (" the R01 Grant" ). In 2011, Dr. Lin's back pain worsened, and she requested to be excused from performing certain laboratory tasks requiring her to work at a bench with her back bent for extended periods of time. Dr. Ellis accommodated this request and assigned Dr. Lin to perform microarray work for the R01 Grant, which did not exacerbate her herniated discs.

          In mid-2012, Dr. Lin had a disagreement with a colleague, which resulted in a complaint being filed against her. Dr. Ellis forwarded this complaint to a University research administrator and asked human resources to initiate a process " with a view to terminating" Dr. Lin's position. At this same time, Dr. Ellis was informed funding for the microarray work under the R01 ...


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