Judge upholds $185 million pregnancy bias award against AutoZone

Frank S. Clowney III

On Nov. 18, a federal judge upheld a jury’s $185 million punitive award to a former AutoZone store manager for pregnancy bias, discrimination and retaliation she experienced at one of the retailer’s San Diego locations. The judge rejected AutoZone Stores Inc.’s assertion that the punitive award could not stand because the plaintiff did not link a specific AutoZone director, officer or managing agent to her discrimination claims, ruling that the retailer’s legal department qualifies as an agent under California law.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit, originally filed in January 2008, said she was promoted from sales representative to parts sales manager in April 2001 and discovered she was one of only 10 female store managers working in San Diego’s 98 AutoZone stores. She claimed she was frustrated in her efforts to rise to store manager and was only promoted in October 2004 when she threatened to sue.

When the plaintiff became pregnant in September 2005, she said her district manager asked her to step down as store manager, claiming she could no longer handle the position. She refused, but the lawsuit said her manager repeatedly “chided” her about her pregnancy, and he eventually became more aggressive, mean and critical to her. She was demoted in February 2006 and ultimately dismissed in November 2008, after suing AutoZone and filing a discrimination claim with the state.

The jury agreed with the plaintiff’s accusations of discriminatory demotion, a hostile work environment and discriminatory and retaliatory termination, awarding her $872,000 in actual damages. The jury also found AutoZone acted in malice and awarded the plaintiff an additional $185 million in punitive damages.

California workers who believe they face workplace discrimination may wish to discuss their legal options with an attorney. Discrimination due to pregnancy, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age and gender is forbidden under state and federal law.

Source: Bloomberg BNA, “AutoZone Must Pay $185 Million in Punitives For Pregnancy Bias, Retaliation, Judge Rules”, November 19, 2014