FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF SAINT LOUIS CITY The Honorable
Christopher Edward McGraugh, Judge
Lin filed suit against Washington University ("the
University") and Dr. Matthew Ellis for retaliation
pursuant to section 213.070 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.
and Procedural History
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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