In November, AutoZone was hit with a record $185 million punitive damages verdict after a former store manager brought a lawsuit alleging she was fired after giving birth and in retaliation for having complained about discrimination.
The plaintiff, Rosario Juarez, joined AutoZone in 2000 and, in 2001, was promoted to parts sales manager. Upon being promoted, Juarez noticed a gender disparity within upper management at AutoZone. She alleged as much in her lawsuit, which claimed AutoZone had a “glass-ceiling” policy that effectively barred female promotions in the company. At the time of her promotion, only 10 of the 98 stores in the San Diego-area had female store managers.
Juarez herself was finally promoted to store manager in October 2004, but only after she complained about discrimination. In November 2005, Juarez advised AutoZone of her pregnancy and thereafter was urged to step down because she would not be able to simultaneously juggle the responsibilities of running the store and being pregnant. Juarez claimed the discrimination continued after her son was born. She alleged that she continued to complain about discrimination and was ultimately demoted in 2006.
Juarez filed a charge with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 2007. Juarez claimed the company then retaliated against her for filing the complaint by concocting a scheme to terminate her in 2008, blaming Juarez when a customer service representative misplaced $400 in cash from the register. At trial, the company’s loss prevention officer – who has since filed a gender discrimination suit of her own - testified that she never suspected Juarez of any wrongdoing and that the company was indeed targeting her. Another district manager testified that he was at one point offered a promotion if he fired all the women in his stores.
The jury found AutoZone liable for gender and pregnancy discrimination, retaliation, and failure to prevent harassment and awarded Juarez a total of $872,719 in compensatory damages for lost earnings and emotional distress. Finding that AutoZone was acting out of malice in terminating Juarez, the jury also awarded Juarez $185 million in punitive damages. The amount is staggering and is believed to be the largest employment law verdict for any individual in U.S. history.
The verdict has already been challenged, and could well be reduced on appeal.
The verdict should serve as a cautionary tale for employers – gender bias is currently at the forefront of American discourse and government agencies, courts, and juries alike are unforgiving of employers on this front. Employers are well-advised to review their current promotion policies and statistics to ensure that promotions and other employment decisions are uniformly applied and justified by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Now is also a good time to reinforce employee training to ensure the message on the ground is consistent with employer policy.