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Court Upholds $1.9 Million Dollar Verdict In Gender Discrimination Case Against Wal-Mart

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Female Pharmacist Wins Appeal Including Punitive Damages and Huge Front Pay Award

It’s one thing to prove discrimination. It’s an altogether different thing to prove damages which occurred as a result of it.

In the recently published gender discrimination case of Haddad v Wal-Mart Stores Inc,*, the Supreme Court Judicial Court (“SJC”) of Massachusetts affirmed a jury verdict which included $733,000 for 19 years of front pay (future economic loss) and $1 million dollars in punitive damages – and that’s big news.

What Happened In The Case

Cynthia Haddad worked as a pharmacist at Wal-Mart for ten years (seven of those in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts store) mostly as a staff pharmacist. Throughout her time at Wal-Mart, she received excellent evaluations.  

Towards the end of her employment, Haddad accepted the position of pharmacy manager.

During that time, she received less pay than any male pharmacy manager which she consistently complained about.

On April 14th, 2004, Haddad was questioned by three Wal-Mart managers about abut two fraudulent prescriptions.

One of the prescriptions was written in 2002 while Haddad was on duty, and another was written in 2004 while a male pharmacist was on duty.

Haddad told the managers that she did not know anything about the fraudulent prescriptions.

She did admit that the 2002 fraudulent prescription could have been written when she briefly left the pharmacy area to buy a soda at a nearby counter, or when she was in the restroom, eating lunch, or talking to customers.

Haddad’s employment was terminated that same day.

She was told that the reason for her termination was based on her statement during the interview that she failed to secure the pharmacy and left Baran (the technician) unattended in the pharmacy area. Baran, who admitted that she falsified the prescription,was also terminated.

The other pharmacist involved — Richard Blackbird — was on duty the day the fraudulent 2004 prescription was written. That prescription contained his initials.

In a clear case of unequal treatment, neither Blackbird, nor any other pharmacist was questioned about or disciplined for the 2004 fraudulent prescription.

In stark contract to the treatment Haddad received,  Blackbird was appointed to be pharmacy manager at the time of Haddad’s departure.

In addition, Blackbird testified that he commonly left the pharmacy area unsecured to talk to a customer, go the restroom, or get a snack – and that he was unaware of any policy prohibiting this practice.

Haddad filed a lawsuit alleging unequal compensation and termination of employment in violation of Massachusetts laws against discrimination. (M.G.L. c. 151B, s.4) The complaint also stated a claim for defamation.

The jury found in Haddad’s favor and awarded $922,774 in compensatory damages which included:

  • $17,700 in special damages
  • $125,000 for emotional distress
  • $95,000 in back pay
  • $733,000 in front pay

The jury also awarded $1 million dollars in punitive damages.

The Appeal

Wal-Mart appealed claiming a number of errors.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Wal-Mart claimed that Haddad did not introduce enough evidence to prove discrimination. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts disagreed. It held that there was sufficient proof to support the verdict including evidence that:

  • Wal-Mart’s proffered reasons for terminating Haddad were false
  • Similarly situated male employees were treated differently than Haddad for similar infractions of the same policy
  • Other incidents occurred  in which male pharmacists were not disciplined for far more serious infractions, ie. one pharmacist was caught writing prescriptions and taking drugs for himself and was not fired
  • Wal-Mart failed to follow its progressive discipline policy

Front Pay

The jury awarded the plaintiff nineteen years of future economic loss which consisted of the difference in pay and benefits that Haddad would have earned at Wal-Mart compared to the pay and benefits she earned at the job she held at the time of trial.

Nineteen years of compensation represented Haddad’s loss of earning through age 65.

Wal-Mart contended that the front pay award was excessive and speculative. The Court disagreed:

While the award of $733,307 represents a significant dollar figure for front pay, the evidence supported such an award ….

The plaintiff testified to her difficulty in obtaining a new job. There was evidence that Wal-Mart’s allegations concerning her alleged responsibility for drug losses became generally known….

[T]he award of lost income of nineteen years is consistent with the plaintiff’s anticipated retirement age of sixty-five.

Based on the plaintiff’s ten-year tenure at Wal-Mart, her testimony that she had planned to continue working at Wal-Mart for the remainder of her career, and the limited number of pharmacies in the area around Pittsfield, the jury permissibly could have concluded that an award of nineteen years was appropriate.

The Court discussed other cases (both state and federal) in which employees were awarded economic loss for long periods of time into the future – particularly where the circumstances indicated that plaintiffs would have difficulty obtaining comparable employment.”

It’s a very helpful opinion for plaintiffs and their lawyers on the issue of damages for future economic loss in wrongful discharge cases

Punitive Damages

It’s not often that we see cases in which an award of punitive damages is affirmed on appeal.

To sustain the award of punitive damages in this case, Haddad had to prove that the defendant’s act “was outrageous, egregious, evil in motive, or undertaken with reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

Some of the evidence which the SJC of Massachusetts relied upon to support the award included proof that:

  • Wal-Mart was aware that gender discrimination was not illegal
  • Wal-Mart refused to pay Haddad the hourly rate it paid male pharmacy managers
  • Wal-Mart fired a ten-year employee for a single infraction after a sham investigation
  • Male pharmacists were not disciplined for similar or far more serious infractions

It wrote:

The jury was warranted in concluding that Wal-Mart’s pattern of unequal treatment of male and female pharmacists was outrageous and reprehensible.

Lessons To Be Learned

There is no doubt that in today’s economic climate the chances of finding comparable employment after a discharge are slim. What this means is that when employees unlawfully lose their jobs, and prove it, it’s likely that we will see larger and larger verdicts just like this one. It’s an important case both for its content and as a harbinger of what’s to come.

* Reprinted from Westlaw with permission of Thomson Reuters

** This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on December 1, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Images:

63.135.122.65/bergdahlphoto/Wal-Mart

www.a-fib.com/images

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome


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