An employee who puts in years of hard work into one company can only expect to be treated with respect by their employer. Being a “company man” (or woman, in this case) isn’t something you see much of anymore in today’s workforce. So when one Fresno woman was treated unfairly by her employer of 14 years, she decided to take legal action.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is known for a spectrum of things – tasty menu items, numerous locations, and oddly, in a few stores, rodents frolicking around the dining area – but treating their employees unfairly wasn’t one of them… until a few years ago.
Jeanette Ortiz had given a lot to her career – 40 hours a week for nearly 14 years. She served as a general manager and worked the counter before that. And in response to all that, Chipotle Mexican Grill had seen fit to fire her.
Jeanette couldn’t believe that they had done it. The 42-year-old mother had nine children at home to support and Chipotle, the company that had always been there for her, had accused her of stealing and saw fit to terminate her because of it.
Chipotle Mexican Grill of Fresno, California claimed that Jeanette, who had been a model employee up until that point, had allegedly stolen $636 from the company safe. They even claimed to have a video of it on the restaurant surveillance cameras. It apparently showed her taking the money from the safe, fanning it, and looking back to ensure no one was watching.
As far as Jeanette was concerned, the restaurant owners were lying. After all, she knew she didn’t take the money. What’s more, she had already had some pretty unwelcome interactions with the higher-ups at Chipotle over a number of spurious claims over the years. The first of which involved a worker’s compensation claim.
Not long before being so unceremoniously dismissed and accused of theft, Jeanette had filed a worker’s compensation claim for a job-related wrist injury. It had caused the company a bit of trouble and the way Jeanette saw it, the wrongful termination and accusation was their way of defaming her and getting rid of the problem all in one go.
Before she left work, Jeanette demanded to see the aforementioned tape of her stealing the money. Chipotle countered by telling her that they didn’t need to show it to her. When Jeanette ended up taking them to court, however, they had no choice but to show the tape to everyone in the courtroom. They had a problem, though.
When the time came to show the video, Chipotle was forced to admit that they had lost the footage of Jeanette stealing the $636 dollars. Apparently, someone had accidentally taped over it. The judge also wanted to see any messages or notes pertaining to Jeanette’s termination, but Chipotle had lost all of those as well.
Settling for Less
Prior to the trial, Chipotle had attempted to offer Jeanette a mere $1,000 to settle the case. Knowing that there was more to be had, her lawyers suggested that she press for more and countered with $10 million. This would cover lost wages, legal fees, and a fair bit of emotional distress.
Jeanette’s legal argument was that Chipotle’s claim of theft was utterly ridiculous considering her outstanding employment record of 14 years. She had positive performance reviews every year, was making $70,000 a year, and was on her way to a promotion that would see her making upwards of $100,000.
Chipotle’s counter-argument was that she may have fallen on hard times. She had to move out of her home and into a smaller apartment, and had to get a $1,700 loan to pay an old electric bill. She’d even gotten a second job to make some extra money.
That said, just because a person is living paycheck-to-paycheck does not mean they’ll turn to crime. It might, however, make them desperate, which was exactly what Chipotle was claiming. Even with her employment record, the company argued that she may have resorted to stealing because of her situation.
Credibility in Question
There was reasonable doubt in Chipotle’s argument. But when it came to closing arguments, that was not what Jeanette’s lawyers focused on. Instead, they questioned the credibility of Chipotle’s notoriously unscrupulous upper management. In this case, specifically Ben Castillo and Janelle Schrader.
Schrader is Jeanett’s immediate supervisor and Castillo oversees about 70 Chipotle restaurants in California. Their lawyer closed by re-affirming that prior to stealing the money, Jeanette Ortiz was a trusted, well-liked employee but that this trust was violated by her taking the money. It was now down to the jury.
Ultimately, the evidence or rather lack of evidence, won out over Chipotle’s questionable accusations. The jury deliberated for four hours. They accepted her claims, that she had been framed because she had refused to lie about her workplace injuries as Schrader had instructed her to do.
It had taken almost three years of litigation before the jury had finally gotten the chance to meet and discuss the verdict. In addition to damning Chipotle for the fabricated theft and unwarranted termination, they had also decided to award Jeanette nearly $8 million in damages. There also might be additional punitive damages considered in a subsequent hearing.
The $8 million on its own amounts to about as much as Jeanette would have made working at Chipotle and making just her $70,000 a year salary for 14 years. By comparison, that amount is also only a few million less than Chipotle’s founder and CEO Steve Ells took home just last year. It’s also a significant fraction of the company’s profits in 2016.
Punitive damages are generally awarded to deter individuals or corporations from committing reprehensible acts, which the jury determined was exactly what Chipotle did to Jeanette. Chipotle is, of course, appealing the verdict and will be doing so when they meet to discuss those punitive damages. There are lessons to be learned from all this though.
One important lesson to take away from all this falls specifically on the part of Chipotle. It’s exceptionally important for businesses to retain important documents and video that might be used in any sort of court case. Considering this case cost the company millions, it’s clearly a tough lesson to learn.
Additionally, it must be discussed that juries almost always support the side of the individual in cases like this, and strong evidence is the only way to change an inherent bias against “big business.” The cost of not doing so is fairly high and can affect future cases against large corporations as well as their bottom line.
There are still some folks who believe that Jeanette is the liar in this case, but the question of who was telling the truth does seem a bit moot at this point. The courts have made their decision but unfortunately, the remaining question of how much she should receive in damages may continue the case for several years in appeals.