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Fifth Circuit Upholds Houston Police Officer's Retaliation Jury Award

On August 19, 2015, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals upheld a federal jury's $23,000 award for retaliation by the police department and returned an additional award of $127,000 for evaluation of how much of it was due to future loss of reputation.

Along with other Houston Police Department officers, Manuel Zamora sued the Texas city for racial discrimination. His son Christopher (Zamora) was removed from a prestigious unit soon thereafter. He then joined the lawsuit, alleging supervising members of the unit fabricated allegations against him in retaliation for his father's involvement in the suit. He also complained of the fabricated allegations to the department's Internal Affairs Division (IAD).

The IAD investigator interviewed the supervisors who fabricated additional allegations against Zamora and questioned his honesty. As a result of these fabrications, the IAD investigation found that Zamora was untruthful and recommended disciplinary action. The Chief of Police suspended him without pay for ten days. Later, an arbitrator overturned the suspension on the merits.

Explaining that the overturned charge of untruthfulness would still soil his reputation, obstructing future promotions and transfers, Zamora included it in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city for retaliation. A jury awarded him $23,000 for past mental anguish and harm to reputation and $127,000 for future mental anguish and harm to reputation. The judge vacated the future damages award as unsupported by the evidence. Both sides appealed.

The Fifth Circuit overruled the city's points of error. It specifically held that a cat's paw theory of causation could be used to prove a retaliation claim. To use the cat's paw theory, a plaintiff must show that the person with a retaliatory motive influenced the decision maker, who had no retaliatory motive, to undertake the adverse employment action.

The supervisors used false statements to influence the IAD investigator and the chief into taking adverse action against Zamora. The disciplinary action for untruthfulness continued to harm Zamora's future chances of advancement despite having been later reversed. Thus, the jury's award of future damages was supported by the evidence. However, Zamora had only argued future reputational harm on appeal. Therefore, the judgment on liability and compensatory damages were affirmed and the order vacating the future compensatory damages was reversed and remanded with instructions for the trial court to determine whether any portion of the award of future damages should be remitted as having been based on future mental anguish. See: Zamora v. City of Houston, No. 14-20125 (5th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

Zamora v. City of Houston