Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Not A Zone You Want to Get Into: Jury Smacks AutoZone with Discrimination/Retaliation Verdict

On Monday a federal jury in California awarded $185 million to a former AutoZone store manager who alleged that throughout her employment she had been discriminated against, demoted, and ultimately terminated because of her gender and in retaliation for complaining about discrimination. Rosario Juarez worked at an AutoZone retail store in San Diego from 2000 to 2008. Although she received promotions and advanced in positions within the store, these allegedly occurred only after she raised complaints about disparate treatment of women employees. 

After Juarez informed the company of her pregnancy in 2005, she claims she was pressured by her district manager to step down because of concerns over her ability to be both a manager and a new mother. She refused to step down and complained about further discrimination. She claimed that nothing was done in response to her concerns and that instead she was demoted in 2006. 

Following her demotion, Juarez filed a charge of discrimination with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 2007. Her lawsuit alleges that following her filing of the charge, AutoZone devised a plan to terminate Juarez’s employment by blaming her for a customer service representative’s misplacement of money from a cash register. Obviously the jury agreed, and awarded Juarez $872,000 in compensatory damages and a punitive damages award that was not only huge, but well over the amount asked for by Juarez’s attorney.

While the details of this case are just coming to light, I think it is fair to say that the jury’s disgust was significant. Some information being reported about the case suggests that the discriminatory behavior went beyond the district manager who took the adverse employment actions against her. With a verdict of this size, the jury likely found the discriminatory beliefs to have been systemic. This case also points to the danger of terminating an employee after the employee has brought a charge of discrimination. Unless they had verifiable proof that she had engaged in the misconduct justifying termination of her employment, there’s a real danger that the decision is going to be viewed as retaliation.

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