Termination for Stolen Bell Pepper Leads to $16M Age Discrimination Case

Who knew that allegations of stealing a 68-cent bell pepper would lead to a huge employment discrimination verdict to the tune of $16 million? Certainly not the California resident who received this enormous verdict after he was fired from his job at Staples. While this case was brought in California state court, as opposed to federal court, the legal principles at work are still basically the same.

The story of Bobby Dean Nickel

In 2008, office retail super giant Staples purchased a business called Corporate Express where Bobby Dean Nickel was a manager. Nickel managed one of the company's fulfillment centers in Los Angeles County. Before the takeover, Nickel was a model employee with no disciplinary history. However, shortly after new management arrived he started being written up for minor infractions and ultimately terminated in 2011 for allegedly stealing a bell pepper from the workplace cafeteria. Nickel was 64 years-old at the time.

Nickel sued for age discrimination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act

After his termination, Nickel sued for age discrimination, claiming that the new Staples’ managers instigated a scheme of either forcing older workers into retirement or terminating them. The older workers were then replaced with younger workers - often temporary or part-time. The jury ruled in the employee's favor, awarding $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $22.8 million in punitive damages. The trial court threw out the portion of punitive damages imposed against the Staples’ parent corporation, which still left a $13 million punitive damages award.

Staples appealed the verdicts as expected

The primary challenge Staples made to the outcome of this case was based on the evidence of discriminatory intent as opposed to the employer's asserted legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions. Staples asserted that the termination was rightfully based on Nickel's unethical behavior in violating the employer’s “anti-theft” policy. However, that allegation was not sufficient to overcome the evidence that Nickel's new supervisor made comments about older workers and his desire to eliminate them from the company’s workforce. Indeed, another manager at the company testified that he “witnessed a concerted attempt to get rid of the higher paid, older workers” after Staples bought Corporate Express.

Evidence sufficient to support punitive damages

The California court of appeals determined that the evidence in Nickel's case supported the punitive damages award because it established that the employer engaged in “oppression, fraud, or malice.” Put another way, Nickel's was able to show that his employer engaged in an intentional pattern of taking negative actions based on discriminatory intent and then hid that discriminatory intent through the use of false, non-discriminatory reasons. With that evidence, the court found that Staples engaged in malice and oppression, allowing the employee to recover punitive damages.

If you feel you have been the victim of age discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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