California Appeals Court Upholds $16M Judgment in Age Discrimination Case

bell pepperAn employer who was 64 years old when his employer terminated his employment, allegedly for stealing a bell pepper from the workplace cafeteria, recently received some good news from the California Court of Appeal. That court upheld a lower court’s verdict in his favor and the $16 million damages award that went with it. The appeals court made its ruling because the employee had provided ample proof at trial to allow the jury to conclude that the employer didn’t really fire an employee with a relatively clean record for possibly stealing a 68-cent vegetable. Additionally, the employer’s acts of hiding its illegal motives behind false non-discriminatory reasons constituted the sort of malice that permitted a punitive damages award.

The employee, Bobby Dean Nickel, worked for an entity called Corporate Express that Staples, Inc. purchased in 2008. Nickel managed the physical plant at the company’s fulfillment center in Los Angeles County. Prior to the Staples takeover, Nickel had incurred no HR infractions. In 2009, he was written up for two minor infractions. Then, in 2011, the employer terminated Nickel, allegedly for stealing a bell pepper from the fulfillment center’s cafeteria, which was operated by a third-party vendor.

Nickel, who was 64 years old when Staples fired him, sued for violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, including age discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. The employee claimed that, following the Staples takeover, his managers had undertaken a scheme of either forcing older workers into retirement or else terminating them, and then replacing those workers with younger workers, who were in many cases temporary or part-time employees. After the judge ruled on both sides’ pre-trial motions, Nickel was allowed to proceed only on his age discrimination claim. That lone claim, however, resulted in a favorable outcome. In ruling in the employee’s favor, the jury awarded $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $22.8 million in punitive damages. The trial judge threw out the punitive damages the jury imposed against the Staples parent corporation, but that still left Nickel with $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages.

Staples appealed, attacking both the verdict and the amount of damages awarded. Regarding the verdict, Staples challenged an element that is often the crux of many discrimination cases:  namely, evidence of discriminatory intent versus evidence that the employer had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its actions. Staples asserted that it presented at trial sufficient evidence that Nickel engaged in unethical behavior by violating the employer’s “anti-theft” policy, which was the real reason for the termination, and that the employee had no evidence that the termination was guided by an intent to discriminate.

The arguments were not persuasive. The appeals court pointed out that Nickel had evidence that the man who became his supervisor around the time of the Staples takeover had made comments about older employees and his desire to remove them from the company’s workforce. Daniel Velasquez, 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. Velasquez’s testimony, along with the testimony of several other employees, was “ample evidence supporting the court’s finding there was substantial evidence of discrimination.”

The appeals court also concluded that the proof in Nickel’s case supported an award of punitive damages. In order to be entitled to punitive damages, an employee must show that the employer engaged in “oppression, fraud, or malice.” Nickel had enough proof of that in his case. Previous California court rulings, which the appeals court followed in Nickel’s case, have ruled that in a discrimination case, if an employee shows that the employer engaged in an intentional pattern of taking negative actions based on discriminatory intent and then hiding that discriminatory intent through the use of false non-discriminatory reasons, that employer has engaged in malice and oppression, and the employee can recover punitive damages. Upon that basis, the appeals court concluded that the jury was permitted to give Nickel the punitive damages it awarded.

The law contains very clear prohibitions against discrimination based upon age. If you believe you’ve suffered from age discrimination, talk to the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our attorneys can help you through the many facets of the process of pursuing the damages you’ve incurred. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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