Jeanette Ortiz, 42, won’t have to worry much longer about the extra fee for guacamole at Chipotle. Ms. Ortiz, a former Chipotle general manager was found to have been wronged by her former employer—so much so that a Fresno jury awarded her almost $8 million in damages.
Ms. Ortiz, a mother of nine, was accused in January 2015, of stealing $626 from a safe at a Chipotle in Fresno, CA, where she worked. Upper management informed her that they had video evidence from late December, 2014, of her opening the safe, fanning out the money, looking over her shoulder, and taking the money. Ms. Ortiz had worked for the company for almost 14 years, and in that time the company had supported her during four maternity leaves and four medical leaves. Chipotle’s attorney, Robert Hinckley, said that Ms. Ortiz was reportedly under financial stress, which, he felt was the motivating factor for her actions.
The jurors felt differently. Ms. Ortiz’s attorneys pointed out several flaws with Chipotle’s case. First, when Ms. Ortiz asked to see the security footage that upper management cited in her termination, they informed her she could not because it had been destroyed. What is more, during the trial, evidence came out that showed other text messages and notes citing reasons for Ms. Ortiz’s termination had also been lost.
Another wrinkle in the case was the matter of timing. Ms. Ortiz filed a worker’s compensation claim in December, 2014, for carpal tunnel in her wrists, which, she alleged in her complaint, was brought on by her work. When Ms. Ortiz told her supervisor Janella Schrader (a co-defendant in the case) about her injury, Ms. Schrader was displeased. According to Ms. Ortiz’s complaint, Ms. Schrader instructed Ms. Ortiz to, “minimize her injuries to the doctors so that they would recommend her to work, because her services were needed and it was a ‘clog in the pipeline’ if she could not work.” Ms. Ortiz declined to “falsely report the state of her injuries to her treating doctors,” and began medical leave on January 18, 2015. Five days into Ms. Ortiz’s medical leave, she was notified that her employment was terminated because of the apparent theft.
After filing the initial civil complaint, Chipotle offered $1,000 to settle, according to the Fresno Bee. Ms. Ortiz declined the settlement and she now has won almost $8 million between lost earnings, mental suffering, and other damages.
So what is the take away from this case? For starters, encouraging employees to lie about their injuries to return to work—or engaging in any other method of benefits interference—is a big no-no. While allowing employees to take medical leaves may seem like a “pain,” it is required in certain instances. Accidents and injuries happen. Companies that work with their employees to ensure they recover will have more loyal and happier (and healthier) workers.
This case is also a good reminder to preserve evidence. It came out in trial that texts and notes regarding Ms. Ortiz’s termination had been destroyed. Even if this evidence had been destroyed innocently, it does not play very sympathetically to a jury.
Less obviously, this case is an important lesson to employers to make sure you have sound policies regarding investigations and terminations. One of Ms. Ortiz’s attorneys told the Fresno Bee that jurors told him after the trial that, “they didn’t like the fact that Chipotle didn’t have a corporate policy on how to conduct investigations or retain video evidence.” He also said that Chipotle’s treatment of their employee bothered them.
Does your company have a concrete policy when it comes to investigations and video surveillance? If not, this might be a good time to start thinking about implementing a policy.