A California federal jury has awarded a former Costco employee over $1.8 million in damages in her suit alleging that the company didn’t adequately try to accommodate her anxiety and depression after it suddenly required her to take more frequent business trips to Mexico despite her safety concerns.
Jurors in the Southern District of California on Friday found Costco Wholesale Corp. liable for violating California anti-discrimination law when it told longtime employee Marisa Martinez, she had to start taking multiple trips per year to Mexico despite her assertions that the safety risks caused her anxiety to worsen.
The multipronged verdict included a finding by the jury that Costco failed to participate in a "timely good faith interactive process" to determine whether a reasonable accommodation for Martinez's anxiety or depression could be made, and that the company's failure to do so was "a substantial factor" in causing Martinez harm.
Notably, the jurors answered “yes” to the question of whether at least on Costco manager "engaged in malicious, oppressive or fraudulent conduct" toward Martinez "by clear and convincing evidence."
While the federal jury also determined that Costco knew Martinez suffered from anxiety and/or depression and that she was subjected to an unlawful adverse employment action, they determined that her medical condition was not a "substantial motivating reason" behind the adverse employment action she suffered.
Moreover, the jury concluded that Costco wasn't liable for constructive discharge — allegedly forcing Martinez to quit by imposing intolerable working conditions. They answered "no" to whether the company did "intentionally create or knowingly permit" working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person in Martinez's position would have no alternative but to resign.
Broken down, the verdict awarded to Martinez on Friday that concluded phase one of the trial consisted of $850,000 for past economic losses and $850,000 for future economic losses.
On Monday, the jury in phase two of the trial awarded Martinez an additional $150,000 in punitive damages on top of the $1.7 million in noneconomic damages, according to plaintiff's counsel Josh D. Gruenberg of Gruenberg Law.
"We are grateful to the jury for the time they spent on this case," Gruenberg told Law360 on Monday.
Counsel for Costco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Martinez worked at Costco for over 25 years, eventually landing in the management-level position of buyer in the Mexico buying-softlines department. She resigned in March 2019. Her suit was removed from California state court in June 2019.
Despite having already held the management position for over a dozen years, Martinez was informed in mid-2018 that traveling to Mexico at least three times per year was a core duty of her job, according to her complaint and subsequent court filings.
Martinez, who was diagnosed as having "severe anxiety with panic attacks," submitted a doctor's note explaining that her "extreme fear of traveling to Mexico'' exacerbated her condition. In November 2018 she was also diagnosed with depression, according to her suit.
When Martinez complained that the company's safety protocols for trips to Mexico were inadequate, her boss, Steve Mantanona, sought to punish her and push her out of her job, she claimed.
That included being told by superiors in mid-2018 that any business-related travel requests she submitted, including to domestic locations, would be denied until she booked a work trip to Mexico, according to her court filings.
And save for Costco telling her there were no open positions within the company she could transfer to that didn't require travel, Martinez alleged that no conversations took place between her and her superiors regarding potential accommodations.
Martinez claimed in her lawsuit that her exit from Costco amounted to a constructive discharge.
Costco, for its part, argued that it had travel safety protocols in place and "repeatedly" tried to work with Martinez to assuage her concerns, but that Martinez "acted unreasonably and ultimately disengaged from the interactive process," according to an April trial brief.
The company also asserted that her exit wasn't a constructive discharge since she had been looking for a new job for months and that she was on leave at the time she informed Costco of her resignation.
"This evidence demonstrates that plaintiff was not experiencing intolerable working conditions at the time of her resignation, and that she instead made a voluntary choice to leave Costco," Costco said in its trial brief.