Retaliation Claims May Proceed Even When an Underlying Discrimination Claim is Unsuccessful or Unavailable

When an employee submits a claim or complaint of discrimination or harassment in good faith, it is illegal, under both Kentucky and federal law, for the employer to retaliate against the employee.

However, can an employee who has suffered retaliation successfully sue even if her underlying claim for discrimination isn’t successful?

Yes. The retaliation claim stands on its own. The employee does not have to prove that her underlying discrimination or harassment claim was successful in order to establish a retaliation claim.

This situation recently arose in a case involving Columbia University’s business school. A former finance professor filed a sexual-harassment complaint against a senior colleague who, unfortunately, did not respond well to the complaint.

According to her lawsuit, the colleague responded by stalling her research, ruining her chances of getting tenure, and attempting to blacklist her. He allegedly wrote at least 30 emails to industry players calling her “evil” and “crazy.” These emails, many of which were sent from his Columbia email account, were sent to people at the Federal Reserve Bank, economic journals, and top-tier universities.

“My reputation and standing in my field has been extremely damaged by Professor Bekaert’s behavior,” she testified at trial. “Imagine if you apply for jobs and someone very powerful and influential in your profession had said that you are unstable, difficult to work with, a liar, not good at your job.”

She also testified that Columbia ignored her complaints and turned her down for tenure.

She is currently a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management but, unfortunately, the position is only temporary. She fears that she will end up at a lower-ranked program.

After a three-week trial, the jury found in favor of the senior colleague on the plaintiff’s sexual-harassment claim. The jury, however, found that the senior colleague had indeed retaliated against her for complaining, and that the university was responsible for his actions. The jury awarded her $750,000 in compensatory damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages, which are meant to punish bad behavior.

So, yes, retaliation can occur regardless of the strength of the underlying discrimination or harassment claim.


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