Ninth Circuit Upholds $65,000 Award for Sexual Harassment
PHOENIX – A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco has affirmed a $65,000 jury verdict against AutoZone, Inc., the Memphis-based national auto parts retail giant, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today.
The EEOC had sued AutoZone (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., CIV 06-926-PHX-SMM, U.S. Dist. Court for the Dist. of Ariz.) for creating a sexually hostile work environment for Stacy Wing, an employee at an AutoZone store in Mesa, Ariz. Wing reported the sexual harassment to AutoZone management, the EEOC said, but AutoZone failed to take immediate and appropriate action to stop it. The evidence at the resulting jury trial showed that Wing was subjected to egregious sexual harassment by AutoZone’s store manager, including repeatedly forcing Wing’s face down to his genitals and making crude sexual remarks to her. At least one such incident was captured and recorded on the store’s video camera system but AutoZone claimed it lost the video prior to trial, along with all records of Wing’s reports and the “investigation” AutoZone asserted it conducted.
Sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
On June 10, 2009, an eight-person federal jury in Phoenix returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the EEOC, and awarded Wing $65,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. On August 21, 2009, AutoZone appealed the trial court’s denial of AutoZone’s motion that sought to overturn the jury’s verdict (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., 09-16860 and 10-15059, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit).
On March 15, 2011, the Ninth Circuit rejected AutoZone’s appeal, holding that the jury could reasonably have determined that AutoZone management failed to exercise reasonable care to correct promptly the store manager’s obscene and harassing behavior once Wing brought it to their attention, and that a reasonable juror could question the efficacy and good faith of AutoZone’s investigation. The court noted evidence was introduced that AutoZone’s investigator, a regional human resources manager, did not interview certain employees, did not report the investigation to AutoZone per company policy, and did not advise Wing of the outcome of the investigation. The court stated that AutoZone’s inability to produce any documentation corroborating that it had even conducted an investigation – documents AutoZone’s own policies required that it create and maintain – and the loss of the video evidence cast doubt as to AutoZone’s actions.
Upon learning of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, Wing said, “I can finally close this chapter of my life and move forward; you will never know grateful I am for all of [the EEOC’s] help.”
EEOC Senior Trial Attorney D. Andrew Winston, one of the EEOC lawyers who tried the case to the jury, said, “Stacy Wing demonstrated tremendous courage coming forward and reporting what happened to her, and her actions and the actions of other women like her improve conditions in the workplace for all women.”
The EEOC appellate attorney who handled the case on appeal, Paula Bruner, added, “The Court’s decision reaffirms that it is not enough for a Title VII-covered employer to have an anti-discrimination policy. The employer must enforce the policy and take preventive or corrective action to effectively fulfill its statutory obligation to maintain a workplace free of discrimination and harassment . ”
According to the company’s web site, “AutoZone is the No. 1 auto parts retailer in America, with “4,000 AutoZone stores in 48 states and the District of Columbia … and 84 AutoZone stores in Mexico.”
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.
The EEOC’s Phoenix District Office has jurisdiction for Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and part of New Mexico (including Albuquerque).