Certain types of employment lawsuits, like certain cars, are more dangerous than others, as AutoZone Stores – and its legal department – recently learned the hard way.
Store manager Rosario Juarez claimed she was harassed, demoted and terminated because of her sex and pregnancy, and was a victim of a “glass ceiling” at the company. She presented an array of damaging facts at trial, including that after years of successful employment and promotions, within one month of disclosing her pregnancy she was asked to take a lower position due to her pregnancy and suffered “more aggressive, mean and critical” supervision. When she complained to the human resources department, nothing was done and the record of her complaint was destroyed, she claimed. She also put forward evidence that the vice president of operations had said, “what are we running here, a boutique? Get rid of those women.”
This all sounds pretty bad, right? It gets worse. After she filed a charge of discrimination with the California state government, she was fired, with the company blaming her – apparently falsely – for a missing cash envelope.
At trial last year, a jury awarded her $872,720 in economic damages and emotional distress, and a whopping $185 million in punitive damages. The jury’s exorbitant award reflects, in part, how strongly our society feels about the mistreatment of pregnant women.
Late last year a federal judge affirmed the punitive damages award. In an opinion that should send chills down the spines of in-house counsel, the court noted that it was lawful to hold the company responsible for willful violation of the law as the jury could have found that AutoZone’s legal department “committed, authorized and/or ratified” the malicious, discriminatory actions. AutoZone is expected to appeal.
The case highlights that certain plaintiffs – the pregnant, the ill, the injured, the old and the weak (as well as those who selflessly care for them) – are more sympathetic than others, especially when they have a solid work history, as Ms. Juarez apparently did.
Don’t let this happen in your workplace – get in the zone – the empathy zone.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.