Most individuals dealing with a case of wrongful termination don’t realize the full monetary potential of a positive outcome for the plaintiff. After all, wrongful termination lawsuits typically will be in the tens of thousands and cover things like lost wages. They may cover lost benefits, whether they be retirement, unemployment, or medical. In some unique cases, pain and suffering is also an additional amount added… and it can be greater than all the others combined.
In the case of Jeanette Ortiz, a general manager for Chipotle Mexican Grill in Fresno, her wrongful termination lawsuit awarded her nearly $8 million dollars in damages. What started out as a termination under the pretense of theft of only $626 dollars in cash from the restaurant safe ballooned into a $7.97 million lawsuit.
Jeannette Ortiz had worked at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Fresno for 14 years. She was generally accepted to be a hardworking, loyal employee with the company. Her company accused her of stealing money from the restaurant safe and she was fired immediately after. But what sounded like a normal decision for a company to reach over an employee that couldn’t be trusted was far more complicated.
Ortiz’s attorneys pressed on certain facts that didn’t add up to the story Chipotle was telling:
- Ortiz had conveniently just suffered a job-related injury to her wrist caused by Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and filed a worker’s compensation claim, giving Chipotle a motive.
- When Ortiz denied stealing the money and asked to see the video evidence, her bosses declined and instead destroyed the footage. They also deleted text messages and lost notes about the reasons for the termination.
- Ortiz had a supporting witness who identified the missing money was present as of December 30th, 2014 in an envelope when upper management claimed the money was stolen on the 29th.
- Ortiz had no record of theft throughout her entire history with the company. Her 14 years with the company had been documented with nothing but positive performance reviews.
The jury deliberated for only 4 hours before finding in favor of the plaintiff.
Why Did Chipotle Lose?
Establishing a motive was important in Jeanette Ortiz’s case, but much more was needed. After all, Chipotle could argue that the timing of the termination and the worker’s compensation claim was coincidental. In the end, it would only amount to circumstantial evidence on its own. It also wasn’t the only time Ortiz had made a worker’s compensation claim. She had made three claims prior, all of which the company supported her through. Chipotle could even argue that a person who had recently been injured on the job, was dealing with money problems, and made a worker’s comp claim would be even more likely to steal.
We believe Chipotle lost because of the other three bullet points. The company destroyed and/or lost evidence, the plaintiff had a witness that contradicted the testimony of her bosses, and the plaintiff had never shown signs of being a thief in the entirety of her career. What lessons can be taken from this case?
Whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant in a wrongful termination lawsuit, keep records of everything. Destruction of evidence may as well be an admission of guilt because it looks that way to a judge and jury. Losing evidence, on the other hand, appears reckless and diminishes credibility.
If you own a company, keep records of everything including your terminations. If you get fired from a company for false reasons, demand evidence and consult with an attorney. If you have evidence, keep it safe and track everything you can.
Get Witnesses If You Can
If you are fired under false pretense, do what you can to gather witnesses for your case. It can be challenging, as being a witness to a recently terminated employee could put the spotlight on you too. However, do what you can to find others who will support your testimony.
If you represent the company in a matter where you are accused of wrongful termination, do the same thing. Ensure your witnesses understand the importance of documenting and not losing or destroying evidence related to the situation.
Employee Reputation Is Also Important
An employee who can prove that they have been an asset to a company for years is in a good position to win a wrongful termination lawsuit if there is substantial supporting evidence on their side. If you’re that employee, bring performance reviews if you have them. If you’re on the side of the company, bring evidence of the employee’s past shortcomings that may point to the reasons for termination. Again, evidence is key.
The Ability to Settle is Invaluable
A two million-dollar settlement certainly doesn’t sound like peanuts, but you can bet that Chipotle would have rather paid a quarter of what they now must pay as a settlement. The ability to settle is one that should not be taken lightly and many cases end in a settlement that is an accepted compromise for both sides.
Sometimes it’s worth taking the chance and taking your case all the way through. It certainly was worth it for Jeanette Ortiz who was only offered $1,000 by Chipotle to settle her case. In other cases, a settlement may be a reasonable alternative to risking losing your case entirely. A settlement is generally worthwhile when both parties understand the reality of risk and respect the case of the other party enough to resolve the matter with a reasonable settlement.
A valuable settlement can be weighed many ways. If you’re dealing with a case involving wrongful termination, Webb Law Group is here to help you make that decision.
Are You Seeking an Attorney in a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?
Whether you are the plaintiff or defendant in a wrongful termination case, Webb Law Group can assist you. Our law firm has years of experience dealing with employment litigation matters including cases involving California wrongful termination lawsuits. We are happy to review your case and advise you on how we can help and what to do next.
Webb Law Group is a reputable business law firm with experience in matters involving California law, including handling business and real estate litigation matters. Having a reputable attorney by your side for these matters will help give you the best possible chance of a positive outcome in your case. If you feel you need legal representation, we are happy to review your legal needs and provide consultation and support where necessary.
For questions, or to schedule a consultation, contact us today at (559) 431-4888 (Fresno) or (619) 399-7700 (San Diego).