December 18, 2014 Trial News
Jury sides with AutoZone employee in pregnancy discrimination case
A California jury last month awarded $185 million to an AutoZone worker for the discrimination and retaliation she suffered because of her pregnancy. (Juarez v. AutoZone Stores, Inc., No. 08-CV-0417-WVG (S.D. Cal. Nov. 17, 2014).) It is the largest award on record for a single employee discrimination case.
The plaintiff, Rosario Juarez, alleged her manager discriminated and retaliated against her, but the corporate office’s legal department also perpetrated the discrimination and retaliation, reflecting a pervasive problem throughout the company and not just the actions of a low-level manager at a single location.
“This is a story of the legal department and its knowing efforts to hide and discredit somebody who had made these claims [of pregnancy discrimination], and that’s horrible,” said Sacramento, Calif., lawyer Lawrance Bohm, who represented Juarez.
As a store manager at AutoZone, Juarez noticed that male store managers were treated more favorably. Her district manager repeatedly told her she could not handle the job. When she told the district manager she was pregnant in November 2005, he replied, “Congratulations, I guess,” and then immediately became more critical of her work. He made her redo work unnecessarily and told her in front of customers and coworkers that she could not work in her “condition” and told her to “step down.” Yet Juarez and her team continually met their sales targets.
In February 2006, Juarez was demoted to assistant manager and replaced by a male employee. She worked until she was nine months pregnant.
Juarez filed a gender and pregnancy discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 2006, and she also filed a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination in 2007. She had returned to her demoted position in 2007 but was fired in 2008, one month after giving a deposition in her case against AutoZone.
The legal department told the California agency that it had “thoroughly investigated” Juarez’s discrimination claims and found no problem, but in fact no one from the legal department had spoken with Juarez or her coworkers about her allegations.
Also, at a meeting among high-level employees, AutoZone officials announced that the company no longer had to keep statistics on the hiring and promotion of women. Witnesses testified that AutoZone leaders rejoiced at the news, and one district manager testified that the vice president of the Western Division said, “we can finally start getting rid of these women.”
“Women still struggle for equality in our workplace, particularly when pregnant,” Bohm said. “This award signifies the importance of that issue to our community.”
Bohm said one lesson he learned from litigating this case is how important it is to investigate how deep the discriminatory behavior runs. “You have to examine how the civil rights violation occurred, beyond the surface. See if it was part of a larger corporation dialogue,” Bohm said.
Bohm said that with the verdict, the jurors meant to send a message to the corporation that it needs to “clean house.” If the award gets reduced, Bohm said Juarez would appeal.
A separate pregnancy discrimination case is currently pending in the Supreme Court. Justices heard oral argument in Young v. United Parcel Service on Dec. 3. (No. 12-1226 (U.S.).) At issue in that case is whether, and under what conditions, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers.
Peggy Young, a UPS driver, was told by her doctor that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Her job as a driver required her to lift 70 pounds. UPS denied her request to be reassigned to a light duty during her pregnancy and instead said she simply could not work for UPS while pregnant if she could not lift 70 pounds. Other workers, however, were allowed light-duty assignments if they were injured on the job, were legally disabled, or had lost their commercial driver’s license. The Supreme Court must address whether treating pregnant women differently from these other categories of workers is lawful.
New York City attorney Cara Greene said the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was meant to ensure that women could continue working while pregnant. “Having a baby shouldn’t take you out of the workforce,” she said.