A jury awarded more than $185 million in damages to a former employee of a nationwide auto supply chain in mid-November, finding that the company discriminated against her based on pregnancy. The plaintiff alleged that the company demoted her after she gave birth, refused to promote her back to her former position, and eventually terminated her. Her lawsuit claimed discrimination under California state law, which is similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the New York State Human Rights Law. Juarez v. AutoZone Stores, Inc., No. 3:08-cv-00417, second am. complaint (S.D. Cal., Sep. 7, 2010). The amount of the award is likely to come down on appeal under a Supreme Court ruling regarding punitive damages, but the verdict is a significant victory for the rights of pregnant workers.
The plaintiff began working at an AutoZone store in San Diego as an hourly employee in December 2000, and she was promoted to Parts Sales Manager (PSM) in April 2001. She alleges in her complaint that the company was subject to a legal settlement requiring it to maintain an open hiring program, but that this requirement expired in 2001 or 2002. The company’s management allegedly “celebrated the expiration day” and returned to an “opaque hiring process” that discriminated against women. Juarez, complaint at 4. A vice president of the company allegedly referred to a store with multiple female employees as a “boutique,” and directed the district manager to “try to get rid of the women store managers.” Id. The plaintiff was promoted to store manager in October 2004, she claims, only after complaining to the human resources department.
In September 2005, the plaintiff became pregnant. Her district manager allegedly told her she should step down as store manager, but she refused. Around the time her son was born, the plaintiff was demoted back to a PSM position, with a pay cut. She claims that she was told she could be considered for promotion again after one year. When that time period passed, she alleges that the company refused to promote her but regularly had her perform the duties of a store manager. The company fired her on an allegedly pretextual basis in November 2008.
She filed suit in San Diego County Superior Court, claiming pregnancy and sex discrimination, pregnancy and sex harassment, and retaliation under California law. Cal. Govt. Code §§ 12940(a), (h), (j). She also asserted causes of action under federal wage law, which enabled the defendant to remove the case to federal court. When the case went to trial in 2014, the plaintiff presented testimony about the discriminatory practices described above. A former district manager for the company reportedly testified that he was offered a promotion if he fired all of his female employees.
The jury unanimously awarded the plaintiff $872,270 in compensatory damages and $185 million in punitive damages. The ratio of punitive to compensatory damages, nearly 200 to 1, is why an appellate court is likely to reduce the amount. The Supreme Court has ruled that punitive damages should generally be less than 10 times greater than compensatory damages. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003).
If you have been subjected to pregnancy discrimination or other unlawful employment practices, you should consult the employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We represent the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in the New York City under local, state, and federal anti-discrimination law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced advocate, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.
More Blog Posts:
Lawsuit Alleging Denial of Maternity Leave for Puppy Is Satire, but Pregnancy Discrimination Is No Joke, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 19, 2014
Supreme Court Will Consider Whether Pregnancy Discrimination Act Requires Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 24, 2014
Store Manager Fires Woman on Her Second Day Due to Pregnancy, Resulting in EEOC Lawsuit and $15,000 Settlement, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 17, 2014