31,000 Reasons to Care About Employment Claims

By Christopher J. Pyles

On January 27, 2016, the jury in McPadden v. Walmart deliberated for approximately two-and-a-half hours before returning a plaintiff’s verdict in excess of $31,000,000 for claims of gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and violation of New Hampshire’s Whistleblower Protection Act.

The plaintiff worked as a pharmacist at a New Hampshire Walmart. In 2011 and 2012, she reported concerns to management about inadequate staff training within the pharmacy. She also contacted the New Hampshire Board of Pharmacy to express her concerns. Later, the plaintiff lost her key to the pharmacy. She had at least one prior disciplinary “write-up” and there was some question as to whether she would receive a “level one” write-up for losing the key, or a level-two. She received the more severe punishment, which led to her termination from employment under the Walmart disciplinary policy.

The plaintiff alleged that stated reasons for her termination were a pretext, and that the real reasons she was fired involved gender discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation for activities that included raising issues of public safety. After a five-day jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire, her claims went to the jury. It very quickly returned a verdict for the plaintiff for gender discrimination, wrongful termination and the whistleblower claim, while finding for Walmart on the retaliation claims.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $164,093 in lost wages (back pay); $558,392.87 for future lost wages (front pay); and, $500,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded the plaintiff $15,000,000 in punitive damages under Title VII, and another $15,000,000 in enhanced compensatory damages under state law.

The jury award is likely to be modified. For example, by statute, there is a $300,000 cap on Title VII punitive damages, and a challenge to the enhanced compensatory damages also seems likely. However, the back pay, front pay, and compensatory damages should withstand any challenge. The plaintiff will also be entitled to attorney’s fees and costs.

Whatever the final amount, this is obviously a significant verdict. Although unusual, it is certainly a warning to employers to take claims of public safety and discrimination very seriously.