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Bad Reference Constitutes Retaliation Under Title VII

Guangyu Wang was a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. When he was fired from the University, he filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission followed by a lawsuit. His claims were settled approximately six months later. However, Mr. Wang has alleged that his former supervisor retaliated against him, notwithstanding the settlement, by giving an unfavorable reference about him to the hiring official at another university, throwing away his products and supplies, and blocking his access to the campus lab.
The University sought to dismiss the retaliation claims. The federal district court ruled Mr. Wang could proceed on a retaliation claim for being barred from the campus to retrieve his belongings. Those supplies were also important to Mr. Wang’s future research under a grant and such behavior could be construed by a jury as dissuading a reasonable worker from making a claim of discrimination. However, the university’s decision to discard the supplies would not go forward as part of the retaliation because Mr. Wang could not establish ownership as a matter of law.
The University did not dispute giving a negative reference to Mr. Wang’s prospective employer but it argued that the reference had no impact on his hiring by the new school. Citing Ninth Circuit precedent, the court held that “retaliatory dissemination of a negative employment reference violates Title VII, even if the negative reference does not affect the prospective employer’s decision not to hire the victim of the discriminatory action.” Mr. Wang met the standard for judgment on this issue because he showed a link between his lawsuit and the negative reference. The University could not provide a nonretaliatory reason for the negative reference.