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Lin v. Ellis

Supreme Court of Missouri

January 14, 2020

LI LIN, Respondent,

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

          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 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 Grant was set to expire in December 2012, which could eliminate funding for Dr. Lin's position.

         In July 2012, Dr. Ellis informed Dr. Lin funding for her microarray work on the R01 Grant was expiring at the end of the year, and they discussed other work she could perform given her back restrictions. During this meeting, Dr. Ellis told Dr. Lin:

I don't feel there's anyone else in my lab that if I asked them do something that they would say they couldn't because of the physical limitation. Everybody would say yes and go and do it except you. And I'm sympathetic because I'm a physician advising you and you have physical disability that prevents you from doing something that's pretty routine in a lab in the university that is focused on cancer biology.

         Dr. Lin then met with Dr. Ellis, the University research administrator, and a human resources representative. At the meeting, they discussed Dr. Lin's back condition, work restrictions, and the R01 Grant funding issues. The human resources representative requested Dr. Lin provide a physician's statement regarding her back condition and the need for accommodations, which Dr. Lin submitted. The physician's statement indicated Dr. Lin was to avoid work "including, but not limited to, cell culture and excessive bench work" to prevent reinjuring and exacerbating her herniated discs.

         On August 10, 2012, Dr. Ellis formally notified Dr. Lin her position would be eliminated, and the University research administrator drafted a letter confirming her termination in November 2012 once funding on the R01 Grant concluded. The letter informed Dr. Lin she was eligible to transfer to another position at the University for which she was qualified. Dr. Ellis offered to provide Dr. Lin a letter of reference and attempted to find work in another University laboratory that would accommodate her back restrictions. Dr. Lin applied for multiple positions with different laboratories within the University, but she was not interviewed or offered any position. Dr. Lin's employment was terminated November 30, 2012.

         On February 20, 2013, Dr. Lin filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, alleging Dr. Ellis and the University discriminated against her based on her race, national origin, and disability. Dr. Lin further alleged the University and Dr. Ellis retaliated against her by discharging her and preventing her from transferring to a new position at the University because she engaged in a protected activity under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") by requesting a reasonable accommodation. The commission issued Dr. Lin a right-to-sue letter.

         On August 7, 2014, Dr. Lin filed a petition in circuit court asserting claims of disability discrimination and retaliatory discharge against the University and Dr. Ellis. Dr. Lin later voluntarily dismissed her disability discrimination claim and filed a second amended petition. In the amended petition, Dr. Lin alleged she qualified as a person with a disability under the MHRA and requested Dr. Ellis and the University to provide her a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Dr. Lin alleged her disability and efforts to seek reasonable ...

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