On November 17, a federal jury returned a verdict against AutoZone in favor of a single plaintiff for the insane amount of $185,000,000.00 in punitive damages. The plaintiff alleged gender and pregnancy-related harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. On November 19, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California upheld the jury’s verdict and finding on punitive damages. The case is entitled Juarez v. AutoZone (Case No. 3:08-CV-00417). An appeal will surely be filed.
Ms. Juarez was employed as an AutoZone store manager. Ms. Juarez alleged that when she became pregnant the district manager harassed her and attempted to force her resignation. She complained to AutoZone human resources department, but alleged that nothing was done. She further alleged that despite her complaints to human resources, she was demoted to parts manager while AutoZone promoted less qualified males. As a result of her perceived discrimination, Ms. Juarez filed a charge of discrimination with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and also filed suit. Subsequently, she was terminated and claimed that AutoZone retaliated against her for filing her charge and her lawsuit. The jury believed Ms. Juarez and returned a verdict in her favor finding that AutoZone was liable for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. She was awarded $872,719.52 in compensatory damages and a whopping $185,000,000.00 in punitive damages.
While this is an extreme example, employer’s need to realize that there is real money at stake in a single plaintiff discrimination, harassment, or retaliation case. These cases must be taken seriously from the time a charge is filed with a state agency or the EEOC. As a practical matter, employers need to take measures in the workplace to avoid these claims ever being brought. A good employee handbook outlining an employer’s discrimination, retaliation, and harassment policies and a consistent application of those policies will certainly aid in prevention. While I doubt that the $185 million punitive damages award will hold up on appeal, it certainly should serve as an eye opener for employers across the country.