The General Manager of a Fresno Chipotle who was fired while on medical leave settled her wrongful termination lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.
During this time period in late 2014, Ortiz was working through work-related carpal tunnel syndrome, and had already filed a Workers’ Compensation claim. Following the accusation of theft, on January 18, 2015, Ortiz’ carpal tunnel syndrome worsened, forcing her to go out on medical leave. During that time is when Chipotle decided to terminate her for the alleged theft. After Ortiz filed a California labor lawsuit, the jury found that Chipotle had concocted the theft story to terminate her for filing the Workers’ Compensation claim. In the eyes of the jury, the alleged theft had never occurred, but was likely a pretext to terminate her for inadvertently raising the companies Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums.
California Labor Employment Law and Punitive Damages
Usually cases settle prior to verdict, to avoid the uncertainty of trial. Although some cases settle even after a jury verdict to avoid the costs of an appeal, in general, it is unusual. In this case, it could indicate that Chipotle was not expecting the jury to be so pro-employee and to buy into Ortiz’s account of a retaliatory pretext. This case, with it’s large jury verdict, could send a message to other California employers and serve to help leverage larger settlements on behalf of wrongfully terminated employees in California.
Generally speaking, when a Plaintiff prevails in a civil lawsuit, they are entitled to compensatory damages—damages that exist to make them “whole again,” as if the alleged incident that caused them some type of harm had never occurred.Punitive damages, on the other hand, are damages that a court may order to punish a Defendant for egregious conduct. They are intentionally very high in order to deter similar conduct in the future. In the employment litigation context, there typically needs to be proof that the employer had knowledge of the egregious conduct, and approved of it or did nothing to stop it from happening. California labor code (California Civil Code Section 3294) provides that wrongful termination of employment claims can warrant an award of punitive damages.
Chipotle Asks Court to Exclude Nearly 3,000 Workers from California Prevailing Wage Lawsuit
The unanticipated multi-million dollar jury verdict for Ortiz is not the only legal trouble facing Chipotle Mexican Grill these days. A recent Supreme Court decision determined that employers can require their employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, waiving their right to pursue class action status. This decision may make it harder for employees to sue for wage theft and discrimination. Back in 2014, around 10,000 Chipotle employees filed a lawsuit against the eatery for alleging violations of California state labor laws. The Chipotle employees claimed that they were forced to work “off the clock.” After the Supreme Court’s May 2018 ruling, Chipotle now claims that 2,814 workers in the 2014 class action lawsuit do not have a viable claim because they signed a class and collective action waiver when they accepted employment with the company. The court has not yet ruled on the issue, and Chipotle continues to fight the California wage and hour class action lawsuit.