New Jersey's Appellate Division recently recognized that a company cannot escape liability for discrimination by having someone else make the final termination decision. The case was filed by Tina Shipe, an employee who worked for several different Shop Rite supermarkets over 17 years. Ms. Shipe was the only female meat cutter who worked for her employer, Saker Shoprites, Inc.
In January 2008, Saker fired Ms. Shipe. Saker claims Ms. Shipe became extremely angry and cursed loudly enough that other employees and customers could hear her after her department manager, Chris Antimary, accused her of violating several store policies. Based on information he received from Mr. Antimary, the company's senior vice president of human resources, Kevin Maroney, made the decision to fire Ms. Shipe.
In contrast, Ms. Shipe testified that Mr. Antimary treated her poorly from the first day she began working in his store. Mr. Antimary then falsely accused her of violating several store policies in an attempt to set her up to be fired. Ms. Shipe claims that although she was upset by the false accusations, she never cursed or raised her voice. Rather, Mr. Antimary confronted her, demanded that she admit she violated the store's policies and got in her face in a way suggesting he wanted to fight her. Ms. Shipe was extremely upset by his behavior, and as a result stayed in the store bathroom for approximately 10 minutes while she composed herself and tried to stop crying.
Ms. Shipe sued, alleging gender discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). At her trial, the jury found in her favor and awarded her $198,894 in past economic losses (back pay), $486,200 in future economic losses (front pay) and $145,860 in emotional distress damages. The judge subsequently awarded her more than $67,000 in attorney's fees and costs.
The employer appealed, asking the Appellate Division to reverse the jury's verdict. It argued there was not enough evidence to support the jury's conclusion that it fired Ms. Saker because she is a woman, rather than because she was insubordinate after Mr. Antimary disciplined her. However, in Shipe v. Saker Shoprites, Inc. the court found there was enough evidence for the jury to conclude the meeting was a set-up to falsely discipline Ms. Shipe because of her gender, and that her testimony was enough to dispute the company's claim it fired her for supposedly using profanity after the meeting.
Saker also argued there was no evidence that Kevin Maroney, the Vice President of Human Resources who made the decision to fire Ms. Shipe, had any discriminatory bias. In fact, Ms. Shipe did not even claim he discriminated against her.
However, the Appellate Division rejected this argument because Mr. Maroney relied on the information he received from Mr. Antimary, and the jury found that information was discriminatory. The court explained that if this was not legally actionable, companies could avoid responsibility for discrimination by having someone who does not know the employee make final termination (and other disciplinary) decisions based on discriminatory information. The court therefore concluded that although there was no evidence Mr. Maroney discriminated against Ms. Shipe, there was enough evidence to support the jury's conclusion that Saker fired her because she is a woman.
Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. Next week I will discuss the reason why the Appellate Division still reversed Ms. Shipe's jury verdict, and why I think it was a mistake for it to have done so.