Some of the employment discrimination and retaliation claims that we come across can be surprising, but a recent claim alleging a plot to retaliate against an employee who filed a Worker’s Compensation claim may just take the cake. With allegations of falsified accusations and destroyed video evidence, it may not be surprising that a jury awarded the terminated employee nearly $8 million.
Circumstances Leading to Termination
The restaurant manager, Jeanette Ortiz, had been employed with Chipotle’s for more than a decade with outstanding performance reviews. However, she developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of her job duties and filed a Worker’s Compensation claim based on that injury. At that point, it is alleged that her managers hatched a plan to get her fired. In 2015, she was accused of stealing $626 in cash from a safe on the premises. She denied stealing the money of course. However, her employer claimed it had video footage of her stealing the money.
Evidence Falls Apart at Trial
Two very detrimental weaknesses in the employer’s case surfaced prior to trial. First, there was a significant inconsistency in the facts presented by the employer. According to the employer, the terminated manager had allegedly stolen the money on December 29th, but an assistant manager working at the same location testified that he saw the money in an envelope on December 30th, a day after the manager had supposedly stolen it. More devastating, though, is the fact that when the employee’s attorneys asked to review the alleged damning video evidence, the employer refused and then purportedly destroyed the video.
The Jury Finds Employee Was the Victim
After a full trial, the jury deliberated for only four (4) hours before deciding that Ortiz was not a thief. Instead, the jury found that she was the victim of a company scheme to not only terminate her for filing a Workers’ Compensation claim but also to defame her reputation by falsely accusing her of theft. The jury awarded her nearly $8 million in compensatory damages for her termination as well as emotional and mental distress and the damage to her reputation.
Understanding the Concept of Spoliation of Evidence
Spoliation of evidence refers to the negligent, intentional, or reckless, hiding, withholding, altering, fabricating, or destroying any evidence that is relevant to the lawsuit. The act of spoliation of evidence is prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct with which all attorneys are required to abide. It is also prohibited by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. There are many different sanctions possible and tort actions are also possible.
Lawyers who destroy or assist someone else in destroying evidence relating to a case can receive significant fines or be imprisoned for up to 20 years. In addition, under the rules of civil procedure, the wrongdoer’s claims can be dismissed or judgment will be entered against them, expert testimony could be excluded, or the “adverse inference rule” could be imposed.
The Adverse Inference Rule
One important concept for plaintiffs in a lawsuit when spoliation has been proven is that application of the adverse inference rule. This rule says that, if the plaintiff was attempting to present evidence on a legal issue or fact that is essential to their case but is unable to do so because a piece of evidence has been destroyed by the defendant, then the jury is allowed to infer that the destroyed evidence would have been adverse to the defendant. The jury can then accept the plaintiff’s reasonable interpretation of what the destroyed evidence would have shown.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!