Jennifer Passantino spent 18 years rising through the ranks at a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, eventually becoming one of its most successful female managers. But all that changed after she complained about sex discrimination. Suddenly she was excluded from important meetings, had her job responsibilities transferred to other employees and was repeatedly passed over for promotions. Passantino sued and was awarded more than $3 million in lost earnings and emotional distress, over $580,000 in attorneys’ fees and a whopping $8.6 million in punitive damages. Although the jury didn’t find evidence of sex discrimination, it ruled that Passantino had been retaliated against, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld most of the verdict. The decision highlights how easily a weak discrimination claim can snowball into a damaging retaliation lawsuit. What’s more, it points out important steps you can take to shield yourself from punitive damage awards.
Pattern Of Retaliation
Passantino began her career with Johnson & Johnson as a manager in the San Francisco Bay Area and rapidly moved up the corporate ladder. But after being transferred to Tacoma, Wash., Passantino began to suspect that her gender and an “old boys network” were hindering her advancement opportunities.Passantino charged that after she complained, she was subjected to a wide range of retaliatory treatment, including unjustified negative performance reviews and being demeaned in front of co-workers.
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Appellate Court Sides With Employee
Johnson & Johnson tried to get the jury’s verdict thrown out on appeal. But the appellate court found the jury had ample grounds to conclude that Passantino’s complaints affected her reviews, responsibilities and advancement opportunities – especially given the close timing between her complaint and the adverse actions.
Punitive Damages Shield
The Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which covers California, upheld all of the award except the punitive damages. Even though the trial court had already slashed the punitive damage verdict to $300,000, the maximum allowed under federal law, the appeals court returned the case to the lower court to reconsider whether punitive damages were warranted. The court pointed out that under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, employers can avoid punitive damages in some cases by having a written anti-discrimination policy and acting to prevent illegal conduct from occurring. But that shield won’t be available, the appeals court said, when high-ranking company officials commit the illegal conduct.
Review Your Policies
Although it’s unclear if this federal defense against punitive damages would apply to claims under California state law, it’s still important to audit your policies to make sure they prohibit all forms of discrimination and workplace harassment. Plus, spell out that your organization won’t tolerate retaliation against employees who complain – and take steps to make sure managers know your policies and the severe consequences of not following them.