Thursday, November 17, 2011
Court Upholds Sexual Harassment Verdict Against AutoZone
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday upheld an $860,000 award in favor of a former auto parts store employee on her sexual harassment claim.
Div. Four, in the published portion of its decision, rejected AutoZone Inc.’s argument that the testimony of Marcela Fuentes was “inherently improbable” and concluded substantial evidence supported the jury’s verdict in her favor.
Fuentes had worked part-time as a cashier for the AutoZone at Florence and Normandie from 2002 until 2005.
She claimed the assistant store manager, Melvin Garcia, and one of the parts sales managers, Gonzalo Carrillo, had spread rumors that she had sexually transmitted herpes and that she was engaged in a sexual relationship with a coworker.
Garcia and Carrillo also told her she could make more money working as a stripper, or being photographed for a magazine in a bikini, than she did working at the store.
Fuentes also said Garcia had one physically moved her to turn her around and display her buttocks to some customers, in order to sell merchandise. She alleged Garcia had also told her they could be rich if they owned the store because all she had to do “was just turn around and show [her] butt” to customers.
She sued AutoZone, Garcia and Carrillo after receiving right-to-sue letters from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and alleged causes of action for sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and slander.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants but was reversed by the appellate court in an unpublished 2007 decision. The matter was remanded and subjected to a jury trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney.
Fuentes was then awarded $160,000.00 in damages, $23,898.76 in costs, and $677,025.00 in statutory attorney fees.
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein acknowledged that witnesses presented differing accounts of the harassing comments and behavior, but said these inconsistencies were “factual matters” properly resolved by the jury.
He explained that the “inherently improbable” standard encompasses physical impossibility or patent falsity, not the “common situation where there are inconsistencies and contradictions in trial testimony.”
Epstein noted the evidence, which the jury credited, “establishes that all the incidents and comments about Fuentes, including the directive that she display her buttocks to customers to increase sales, the herpes rumors, and the profane speculation about a sexual relationship between her and [a co-worker], were focused on her gender,” and that “Fuentes was made the object of sexual humiliation and exploitation for the entertainment of managers, employees (including those at another store), and customers.”
Additionally, he said, the evidence “established that Fuentes found the conduct of Garcia and Carrillo offensive,” and “a reasonable person would share that perception.”
Epstein went on to conclude the award of attorney fees was not excessive, and in the unpublished portion of his decision, said AutoZone did not waive its challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence by presenting a slanted and incomplete discussion of the trial evidence and was not precluded from challenging the sufficiency of the evidence under the doctrine of the law of the case.
Justices Thomas L. Willhite Jr. and Steven C. Suzukawa joined Epstein in his decision.
Autozone was represented by Gregg C. Sindici of Littler Mendelson. Matthew J. Matern, Paul J. Weiner and Sandra M. Falchetti of Rastegar & Matern, along with Norman Pine of Pine & Pine, were counsel for Fuentes.
The case is Fuentes v. Autozone, Inc.11 S.O.S. 6140.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company