Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is facing a $5.5 million jury award to a former employee accusing the megaretailer of discrimination and retaliation.
While a federal Connecticut jury late last week rejected Michael Barham’s claim that Wal-Mart’s decision to lay him off in 2010 as part of a wider downsizing was essentially discriminatory, the jury did find that denying Barham’s dozen or so applications for newly created positions amounted to retaliation.
When asked if they felt Barham would have been rehired had he not previously complained to the company of discrimination, the jury unanimously agreed that he would have.
With that determination, the jury went on to award Barham $550,000 in noneconomic damages and $5 million in punitive damages for the “malice or reckless indifference” Wal-Mart displayed toward Barham’s rights.
However, Barham was rehired by Wal-Mart in mid 2011 and currently works as an assistant store manager. Under Connecticut law, punitive damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are capped at $300,000, meaning the award is likely to be revised by the court.
As for front pay and back pay, or the wages and benefits Barham may have lost out on had he been rehired, a judge will determine what amount, if any, is owed by Wal-Mart at a later date, according to court documents.
A Wal-Mart spokesman on Tuesday expressed satisfaction with the jury’s rejection of Barham’s discrimination claims and said the company has had “strong policies against discrimination and retaliation for many years.”
“We continue to believe that Mr. Barham was treated fairly, and we disagree with the jury’s finding regarding retaliation,” the spokesman added. “We are considering all options including review by the trial court and, if necessary, appeal to a higher court.”
Barham worked for Wal-Mart as a manager in Connecticut and filed suit against the retailer in 2013, claiming it used the struggling economy of 2010 as a pretext to cut jobs, many of which were held by black workers.
Barham said he and other laid-off employees who openly complained they were fired for discriminatory reasons were repeatedly rejected for open positions they were qualified for simply because of their complaints.
The newly created positions were all taken by nonblack workers, Barham claimed.
Wal-Mart has denied the allegations entirely and argued during litigation that other candidates were found to be more qualified for the positions.
In 2014, Barham was joined in his suit by two former human resources employees with similar allegations but their retaliation claims have yet to reach trial.
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